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That certain special something - why some species have it and what it means for saving them
The polar bear has it. So do the giant panda and blue whale. Even the great white shark has a certain je ne sais qoi. Call it animal magnetism.
Just as art is something we recognize but cannot define, so it is with charisma, that fleeting, immeasurable, innate quality that turns the head and stirs the soul. For better or for worse, animals that are big, cuddly or scary tug at the human heart strings in ways that smaller, less dramatic creatures do not. Conservationists have a term for these glamour species: charismatic megafauna.
What makes fauna charismatic? Shark researcher John McCosker suggests it's purely a matter of color. "People love animals that are black and white," he observes. "Zebras, giant pandas, killer whales, penguins, even great white sharks - they're all black and white. People love the simplicity of them."
Beyond that, people tend to gravitate toward animals that look or act like us, even if only vaguely. Creatures that walk upright and share with humans the same allotment of appendages and sense organs register high on the emotion meter. Especially appealing are animals that nurture their young.
Another factor is size. Animals that are bigger than we are almost always command our admiration, if not our affection. The feeling we have for whales and elephants, for example, is quite different from our emotional response to sharks and crocodiles. Big animals that eat people have an appeal rooted not so much in empathy, but in fear and respect.
Some conservationists disparage the notion of charismatic megafauna, arguing that popular animals get more than their share of attention and money. This unnatural selection, they say, gives favored species an unfair advantage and undermines basic biology.
Others point out that helping charismatic species, which often are large creatures at the top of the food chain, has a trickle-down effect. "Big animals need lots of space," says gorilla researcher Alexander Harcourt. "Save a big animal and you almost automatically save all sorts of other animals as well."
Perhaps most important, creatures that light fires in the human heart serve as valuable symbols. They are representatives, living images of their worlds, and by drawing attention to themselves they help focus conservation efforts on entire ecosystems, drab species and all. "These are animals that people can relate to," says biologist Thomas Lovejoy of the Smithsonian Institution. "People in general aren't sophisticated about biology, so they don't appreciate the importance of microbes and beetles as much as they can appreciate the drama of, say, a grizzly bear."
On the following pages, International Wildlife takes a look at 12 species from all over the world. Some are thriving, some recovering from near extinction, some teetering on the brink. But they all have one thing in common: "it." Charisma, of course, is a matter of personal taste. But we think you'll find these animals hard to resist.
Jim Watson, a former senior editor of International Wildlife, has never met any charismatic megafauna he didn't like.
Seeing Ourselves Mountain Gorilla
To peer into the mountain gorilla's heavily browed eyes is to gaze across cons of evolutionary history at an unsettling, imperfect reflection of ourselves. Largest of all apes - some adult males weigh 180 kilograms (400 lbs.) - the gorilla occupies a special niche among wild species. Although certainly …