Are we loving wildlife to death?

Elephants, pandas, lions and tigers have all made the top ten of a new ranking of the world’s 100 most popular mammals; yet evidence shows that despite their iconic status, these species are some of the most threatened with extinction. 

Loved to death

The project, aptly named ‘Loved to Death’, examines mankind’s cultural relationship with wildlife, and was compiled using an assessment of global Wikipedia entries and searches over an eight-year period – with, perhaps unsurprisingly, ‘humans’ ranking top of the list of most searched-for mammal of all.  

Whether they feature in childhood nursery rhymes or as the mascots of famous sports teams, the names of these animals are ever-present in modern culture – and yet, as ZSL’s report shows, cultural impact alone is no guarantee of safety from extinction. 

Of the nine animal species in the top 10 – the elephant, lion, tiger, polar bear, killer whale, cougar, giant panda, grey wolf and duck-billed platypus – five are currently classified as either vulnerable or endangered according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 

In contrast, the number one most searched-for mammal on the list – Homo sapiens – continues to proliferate across the planet at an astonishing rate, raising questions about the importance we increasingly seem to place on our own species, at the expense of all other life on Earth. 

ZSL’s Director of Conservation Programmes Professor Jonathan Baillie said: “The ranking essentially highlights our planet’s most popular mammals.  It is therefore concerning that five of the top 10 and 30 per cent of the top 100 are threatened with extinction.  Would society allow five of the top 10 most iconic pieces of art to be destroyed or 5 of the top most iconic buildings?  The answer is clearly no – so why do we tolerate the devastation of iconic wildlife?’’    

‘’Hopefully this report will help us to rethink what we truly value.  If we care enough, we can reverse declines – such is the case with the panda, which was recently moved from Endangered to Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, or the wolf, which has greatly increased in numbers globally.’’ 

‘’Of the top 10 most iconic mammals, elephants are currently at greatest risk with more than 30,000 being illegally killed per year so that their tusks can be used to make things such as trinkets or statues.’’    

At the forthcoming CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna) CoP meeting in Johannesburg, a cohort of African nations are expected to lobby global governments to implement domestic ivory bans, as part of longer-term efforts to completely eliminate the international market for elephant tusks. Countries including China, the US and France have all agreed to a near complete ban, but others including Japan and the UK are yet to make similar commitments.  

Commenting on the methodology behind this project, Dr Robin Freeman, Head of ZSL’s Indicators & Assessments Unit – which provided the data for the ranking – said: “‘In order to determine the most popular mammals, we examined how frequently people viewed pages about these various species on Wikipedia. Compiling the average number of daily views for 5,227 mammal species since 2008, we produced a ranking showing the most popular across this time period.”

To coincide with the launch of ‘Loved to Death’, a striking collection of artistic images of the top ten species has also been commissioned from London-based artist Nina Dogmetchi. Commenting on the project, she said: “Hopefully my art has helped to illustrate that there is something fundamentally wrong with our relationship with nature.  We need to be living in a world where animals valued by humanity are cared for, not driven to extinction.’’

Professor Jonathan Baillie added: “By launching this thought-provoking project to coincide with CITES, we’re aiming to both confront people with the reality facing iconic species such as elephants as well as raise questions about the way we appear to prioritise human progress over the needs of our planet’s fragile wildlife; the presence of which adds so much richness and diversity to our existence.”

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