12 May 2018
By Helen Huang
We all love the cute, cuddly and majestic. Even more so if they’re endangered animals. But what about the not so aesthetically gifted? It seems we’re leaving these poor animals behind, both being under-researched and ignored for conservation efforts.
The blobfish became a global sensation in 2013, championing ‘ugly’ animals worldwide. In the five years since, it would be expected that conservation efforts have improved for our aesthetically challenged friends but Australian biodiversity conservation is suffering.
‘Charismatic megafauna’ (our cute and majestic animals) have hogged the spotlight for conservation efforts globally. After all, we all know the panda – the mascot for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), but far fewer would recognise the critically endangered Australian southern bent-wing bat.
Australia is no exception to ‘ugly’ animal prejudice. A 2016 Mammal Journal report revealed less pleasing animals such as rodents and bats, make up 45% of Australia’s fauna population, but receive minimal research effort.
Associate Professor Patricia Fleming and co-author Bill Bateman, studied literature on 331 Australian animal species and noticed three distinct groups – native marsupials like kangaroos and koalas or the ‘good’, invasive species like foxes and cats or the ‘bad’, and native eutherian species like rodents and bats or the ‘ugly’.
“We [found] that our native eutherian species are our rodents and bats, they have very little research investment in terms of how much time people spend working on them and certainly in terms of financial investment research in that area,” says Flemming.
“I think the issue is probably that we tend to focus on the problem, [we work] on invasive species because we have to protect our farmer’s livelihoods, we have to protect our food production.
“And then the rodents and the bats are small species that we probably take for granted.
“We have small insectivorous bats flying above us [eating] mosquitos for us and we don’t really spend much time thinking about them.”
“We need to understand what role they play. It would be quite easier to sell for bats because they do carry out those important functions in terms of controlling invertebrates.”
“The ones that are recognised as being ignored, they are small species [and] they’re not as charismatic as say a kangaroo.
“You know, you don’t want a photo of you with a native bat but you probably would take a photograph of you hugging a koala bear. Something like that makes a massive difference to the profile of the animal.”
Few to any Australian organisations campaign for ugly animals over the loveable koala, but in the United Kingdom, it’s a different story.
Introducing the Ugly Animal Preservation Society, a comedy group founded by biologist Simon Watts, to educate and raise awareness about the plight ugly animals face. The Society became a viral sensation in 2013 for their unique goal – to save ugly endangered animals, after the blobfish was chosen as their mascot.
“We’re not a real organisation I guess, we’re a satirical one,” Simon says.
“We need to talk about conservation in a different way.
“Conservation is so depressing I had to find some way of making it a bit [lighter] and try to engage with different people.
“So, using comedy was quite a light way to do it. I think there’s an appetite for this.
“It’s really a chance to talk about the species that people haven’t heard about because everybody knows the panda, and everybody knows the polar bear. The ugly creatures are just as interesting, if not more so. They’re definitely the majority ‘cause most of life are things like insects, and people need to hear about them.
“The purpose behind my campaign wasn’t just to try and save these animals but for people to try and understand how big the crisis was.
“I don’t think the problem of certain animals being over and under-represented in conservation was something that was much known in the public before I started talking about it. And that is a genuine problem.”
“One of the biggest crisis to face our world at the moment is our biodiversity crashing, so this is something I want everybody to be talking about regularly.”
The Society gained global attention for bringing to light the under-representation of ugly animals in conservation research. Yet funding and efforts towards biodiversity conservation seem to have come to a standstill.
“In order to like, have actual active impact you need to probably have a lot of money and a lot of changes,” Simon believes.
“I think something that’s important in conservation and something which must always be remembered, is that we must always be telling new stories. If you want to be persuading people they can’t just hear the same thing again and again and again.
“But also, the kind of people that’ll be persuaded by the panda and the like are already in our team, the people we have to persuade are economists and politicians. I’d quite like the world to acknowledge that conservation and climate change should be a little bit of a political issue.
“We can’t allow politicians to lie to us and claim to be doing more than they are. We must make sure that they have policies in place to deal with these massive, massive challenges.”
The biodiversity crisis facing Australia is not new, yet not enough are aware of it says James Trezise, a policy analyst for Australian Conservation Fund.
“There’s a whole bunch of research that shows the public don’t understand the challenge that we face in terms of the extinction crisis globally and in particular, Australia,” says Trezise.
“One of the key bits of research that has recently come out has shown that there’s such poor awareness that even the charismatic species like lions and giraffes and koalas, that everyone knows about, people aren’t even aware that they’re in peril of going extinct in our lifetime.”
This crisis shows no evidence of slowing down either, as the Australian budget released last week showed “a model decline of 43% biodiversity funding the Turnbull government came to offer,” says Trezise, “so what we’re focussed on, [is] how can we try increase investment in biodiversity conservation across the ballpark.”
“We are one of the top countries in terms of the numbers of species at risk,” says Fleming, “and yet we’re one of the lowest countries across the globe in terms of how much funding goes into conservation of our wildlife.
“So, what we have is very unique and we also have very little funding to spread across [Australia].”