Inspiration for this article struck when routinely and somewhat absent-mindedly scrolling social media. In the same week I saw a story about a demented polar bear in a shopping centre and elsewhere, appeared a video of a tiger chained and being prodded for the sake of someone else’s Facebook fame. It is only recently that the true nature of this selfie-fuelled trade is coming to light. For many years animals have suffered; lions sedated, elephants beaten, and chimps teeth pulled out but now these practices are being exposed. Perhaps the most heart-breaking side to these stories is seeing these large charismatic animals, being tortured (for lack of a better word) and in that immediate moment I can do nothing to help them. However, the aspect that perplexes me most is the commentary below these images and videos; filled with (often) misdirected fury. I wonder how with so many million outraged people, animals are still suffering to such a great extent?
I find it strange, yet compelling that a visitor will take on board the messages of ‘danger wild animals’ at the zoo and can explain to their children why big cats must be kept behind fences. Yet those same people could happily go on their holidays and take photos with those same species uncaged, without question. Then horrified and shocked responses wash across social media outlets when an animal fights back. There is a serious miscommunication of information happening somewhere and I believe that this knowledge gap is borne out of our lifestyle. Things are boxed up, compartmentalised and in many cases lateral thinking is not encouraged. A day at the zoo is just that; at the zoo the tigers live in enclosures, and in Thailand they are sociable enough to take selfies. I do not believe that all of these problems are borne out of ignorance but rather, failing to connect everything together. This is clearly evidenced by occurrences such as the outrage at the live dissection of Marius the giraffe. People are angry, that much is obvious, but I am not sure they know what they are angry at.
To use another example, the species that is the subject of my masters thesis has been called an otter, anteater, ferret, rat, hamster and even a brown thing. This species is in fact the ironically named Common cusimanse, a close relative of the famous meerkat. I have been guilty of an occasional eye rolling moment upon hearing such comments but why should someone know what they are? Tying into what I said in my first article, the Common cusimanse has no bearing on the average day of someone in Britain. However, the meerkat could be featured on TV screens several times a day, and that’s enough to create an interest.
So how can zoos- put things in perspective and allow people to see that the tigers suffering for selfies in Thailand, those living in a zoo in the UK , and those still roaming free are all the SAME species? I believe that the answer lies with using the flagship species concept. These large charismatic animals are in no way superior to any other, but they are suffering more and more increasingly at the hands of man. Unfortunately they are an easy target. However, this notoriety can be put to good use. I have seen for myself that charismatic animals can draw a crowd without fail. They don’t even have to be big animals, as proven by the popularity of penguins. The use of the flagship species as a conservation initiative has declined in popularity as more and more species reach critical levels. Conservationists can find themselves asking if we should jump ship on some of these larger animals in order to save as many others as possible. Personally, I think that we should continue to do what we can for ALL species.
As our lives seem to revolve more and more around screen time, maybe we should monopolise on this. In recent years animals at several zoos have hit headlines, for a variety of reasons both good and bad. When this happens everyone seems to become an expert, fiery fingers take to social media to comment and word spreads almost instantaneously. Within seconds millions of people know all the details, both true and untrue. It is evident that these animals have the ability to do something incredible; create a reaction. I think the hearts of everyone in Britain melted at the sight of Sir David Attenborough and that baby rhino. I know that those moments certainly have the power to remind me why we continue to fight this battle. I can’t help but stop, enraptured to watch an orangutan doing forward rolls or a gangly baby giraffe mastering herd life. I believe that we must continue to fight to save these species; personally I will continue to fight for them in my career. Attempting conservation in an age where attention spans last barely a few seconds is challenging enough. To lose the charismatic megafauna that humans clearly feel connected to and curious about could make this fight even harder, maybe even impossible. That’s not a world I want to live in, do you?