Your favourite teddy bear might be the reason real bears are going extinct

Obstacles
You've probably run into some wild animals today. Giraffes in the form of cuddly toys, or a tiger selling breakfast cereal. It might look like they’re doing well, but animals popular in culture are in serious trouble in the wild.

In a recent study, scientists identified the top 10 most charismatic animals like tigers, lions, elephants, giraffes, leopards, pandas, cheetahs, polar bears, grey wolves, and gorillas. It's a commonly held belief that conservation efforts are directed more towards animals humans find cute and attractive, but it turns out that's not always the case.

Despite the public’s affection, these animals are still at risk of imminent extinction. Could their popularity even be the reason why they’re in trouble? Seeing lions and giraffes in zoos, in the media and as fluffy toys every day means that people don’t realise how their numbers are dwindling in the wild. “Unknowingly, companies using giraffes, cheetahs or polar bears for marketing purposes may be actively contributing to the false perception that these animals are not at risk of extinction, and therefore not in need of conservation,” co-author of the study Franck Courchamp argues. The report suggests that companies popularising these animals could compensate by donating part of their profits to conservation organisations or using their platforms to raise public awareness.

The animals’ virtual presence doesn’t match their presence in nature, and it’s misleading the general public about their endangerment statuses. The study found that the average person sees two to three times more ‘virtual’ lions through cartoons, logos, and brands in a single year than the remaining total population of wild lions living in the whole of West Africa.

Just today, how many of these animals you’ve seen on a box, a screen or even a t-shirt? Do you know anything about their conservation status in the wild? If we don’t start putting money towards environmental preservation, our furry friends will only exist to us via a screen or toy. As cute as those polar bears in Coca-Cola ads are, how many actual polar bears will still be around by next year?

Courchamp, a conservation biologist, says that funding charismatic animals will have the knock-on effect of helping other species as well; besides, "if we’re not able to save the lions," how can we save "the tiny creatures on remote islands that nobody cares about?" Cute and ugly animals alike, conservation efforts need to be a public priority.

To learn what you can do to protect wildlife from extinction check out these organisations:

  • Save The Elephants conducts research and spreads awareness about elephants in the wild as well as protecting them
  • WCN, Wildlife Conservation Network, provides independent wildlife conservationists with the tools and funding
  • WWF, World Wildlife Fund, is the world's leading conservation organization protecting wildlife all over the world

More Stories

  • Opiophobia is leading millions to die in pain - Uganda has a clever solution

    Solutions

    In the United States, opioid addiction is an epidemic. We are all to familiar with stories of an over-prescription of pain killers leading to addiction but our fear of opioids is also causing millions to suffer in pain.

    Michael Plant, a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford, addresses the under-prescription of opioids in middle- and low-income countries:

    “Pain is not really a problem we encounter in our own societies and that's because if you are dying from something horrendous then you can get morphine to alleviate your pain. This is true in the developed world but not really in the developing world.”

    The World Health Organisation estimates that 40 million people are in need of palliative care every year and of those who need it, only 14 percent receive the care.

    Access to essential pain relief is distorted. A Lancet 2017 study reported that the United States has access to 31 times as much pain relief needed by patients while Haiti receives less than one percent of what is needed. According to the study, 25 million people die in pain every year without access to pain relief.

    More shocking is that the issue here isn’t money. It’s policy. Restrictive regulations fueled by a fear of unintended opioid use and lack of awareness are building barriers for people who desperately need pain relief to receive it. Countries have a tough balancing act of insuring necessary access to pain relief while avoiding an abuse crisis.

    Uganda answers this balancing act by distributing bottles of morphine diluted in water to help prevent addiction. A person would have to drink gallons to get high. As reported in the New York Times, these bottles are given to those in need by a private charity, Treat the Pain and the government absorbs the cost so it is free for patients.

    This isn’t a new solution, Treat the Pain partnered with Hospice Africa, started distributing oral morphine solutions in 2011. Uganda has ranked 35th out of 80 countries and second in Africa in the 2015 Quality of Death Index from the Economist Intelligence Unit. So why aren’t other countries following suit? Uganda is inspiring laws and policies for several countries but the low-cost solution is not popular largely because of lack of awareness and infrastructure and frustratingly because of the fear of the word 'opioid'.

    Read more
  • Fashion’s obsession with python leather can be cured in a lab

    Solutions

    One of the most desired leathers at the moment is python. Pythons have extremely durable skins adapted through evolution for survival. Why we humans need python skin is, well, a luxury thing, a status indicator, not a necessity. Nevertheless, the demand for python skin accessories like handbags and shoes is on the rise. Import prices have grown from 350,000 skins valued at €100 million in 2005 to $1 billion today.

    Increasing demand for python leather has taken a toll on this species; about half a million pythons get skinned every year. In Southeast Asian countries, pythons suffer from being kept in captivity and experiencing very short lives.

    Those working in the tanning industry, a process in which skins and hides of animals are treated to produce leather, are exposed to dangerous working conditions and chemicals. Leather tanners have higher rates of cancer, gastrointestinal diseases, and other life-threatening health issues due to long-term exposure to tanning chemicals.

    In Southeast Asian countries where tanning takes place, the technology to recycle waste from tanning is very poor. As a result, nearby waterways are polluted with chemicals and acids, affecting communities at large.

    Even though the python industry is booming, it is not very profitable for people working in the lower end of the supply chains. While a villager in Indonesia sells one python skin for $30, a fashion boutique will be selling the python-skin product for a much higher price. For example, Fendi’s Multicolored Python Patchwork Collarless Jacket was priced at $11,500. 

    Kering, the company behind major luxury brands like Gucci, Alexander McQueen, and Yves Saint Laurent, has built its own python farm as a result of the incredible demand for their skins.

    The chief sustainability officer for Kering, Marie-Claire Daveu, said: “This is a long-term commitment to developing sustainable and responsible sourcing of Kering’s python skins.” While pythons in the Kering farm may have a better quality of life than those kept in captivity in Southeast Asia, in this day and age there is an even more “sustainable” and “responsible” way to source leather skins — growing them in a lab!

    One initiative successfully growing leather from cells is called Modern Meadow. They use living cells to grow leather materials via a process entirely free of animal slaughter. Their technology grows collagen, a protein found in animal skin from which bioleather material can be created. The most intriguing part of the technology is that virtually any skin could be grown, even of exotic extinct animals. While this may seem futuristic, it’s already a reality.

    Paul Shapiro in his book Clean Meat argues that popularity in lab-grown leather can make lab-grown meat more palatable, solving two incredibly environmentally-exhausting issues; demand for meat and leather, at once. 

    For some people the ick-factor of lab-grown meat is hard to overcome. Lab-grown leather, on the other hand, is not instinctively gross. Who actually loves leather because they feel they are wearing or carrying real animal skin? People like it for quality and the feel of it and if it can be made exactly the same minus animal cruelty, why not make the switch? 

    Read more
  • Why soybean producers don’t want consumers to eat... soy

    Obstacles

    With a harvest of 116.48 million tons estimated for 2018 alone, the United States is the world’s second largest producer of soybeans. That’s a lot of tofu burgers and cordon bleus.

    However, a staggering amount of this copious production doesn’t go to the soy product industry like one would expect. In fact, America’s biggest buyer of soybeans is the livestock industry, buying the beans for animal feed. That’s where the majority of soy ends up.

    Worldwide, around 70 percent of the world’s soy is fed directly to livestock while just a paltry six percent of “shu” (the ancient Chinese name for soybeans) is turned into human food. The rest becomes mainly soybean oil.

    This leads to a paradoxical situation since for soybean producers it is much more lucrative to sell their crop to the animal farming industry than to producers of soy-based food for human consumption. As The Humane Society’s Paul Shapiro writes in his 2018 book Clean Meat, “Ironically, the last thing soy producers want is for Americans to shift from meat to soy products like tofu and edamame, since the latter requires so much less soy.”

    Shapiro also mentions a 2013 report commissioned by the United Soybean Board that noted: “actions to maintain and expand animal agriculture in the United States — by supporting its long-term competitiveness — are of critical importance to the soybean sector.”


    As reported by the National Geographic, for every 100 calories of grain we feed animals, we get only about 40 new calories of milk, 22 calories of eggs, 12 of chicken, 10 of pork, or 3 of beef. The inefficiency of this system is evident and the data makes clear why soybean producers are big supporters of the meat industry and don’t want consumers to eat soy.

    With an estimated collection of 117 million tons for its crop year, Brazil is the new global leader in soybean production and export. Significantly, deforestation related to soy production has been responsible for around 29 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions between 1990 and 2010.

    It’s then clear that, if we want to stop deforestation in the area, we –— as consumers — need to change our diets. But that doesn’t mean that we need to give up our beloved (?) tofu sausages. Quite the opposite, we need to slow down our consumption of their animal counterparts.

    If you want to know more about how we can reduce the global consumption of animals by 50 percent by the year 2040, check out (and maybe donate to) Proveg, a leading international organization that is active in the field of food awareness. 

    Read more