When it comes to the environment and the impact humans have on it, one way wildlife conservationists drum up awareness is by foregrounding charismatic megafauna. This term refers to large animal species with widespread popular appeal, such as pandas, tigers, elephants, gorillas, whales, etc.
These animal species have often been featured in films and documentaries because of their ability to elicit strong feelings of fondness, fear, or reverence. Think: the orca whale in Free Willy or the titular leopard in Bringing Up Baby. Such charismatic megafauna are often used to represent and advocate for other species that live within their same environment or region.
“Save the whales” campaigns, for instance, are not just about saving the whales themselves; they’re also intended to raise awareness for ocean conservation as a whole. Images of polar bears struggling to stay alive in their changing (and disappearing) habitat are intended to tug at our collective heartstrings so we’ll make more deliberate efforts to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
The ultimate hope is that the more we’re exposed to and enamored with these charismatic megafauna, the more attention we’ll pay to the issues facing them and the other lesser-known species around them. (These kinds of trickle-down benefits are referred to as the “umbrella effect.”)
Below, we’ve rounded up six quotes from individuals who’ve had close working relationships with various types of charismatic megafauna that exemplify how much we can learn from these beautiful creatures.
Chimpanzees, more than any other living creature, have helped us to understand that there is no sharp line between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom.Jane Goodall
Jane Goodall is considered one of the world’s foremost experts on chimpanzees, having studied chimpanzee social and family life for more than 60 years, starting with the Kasakela chimpanzee community in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania, in 1960.
She’s used her observations on the behavioral comparisons between humans and chimpanzees to amplify her advocacy for animal-human conservation. One of the many discoveries that defines Goodall’s legacy is her observation that chimpanzees make and use their own tools.
A lot of people say an octopus is like an alien. But the strange thing is, as you get closer to them, you realize that we’re very similar in a lot of ways.Craig Foster
In 2020, documentary filmmaker Craig Foster produced a Netflix Original film called “My Octopus Teacher,” comprised entirely of footage he captured while spending a year forging a bond with a common octopus in the kelp forests of False Bay, near Cape Town in South Africa. He and the octopus — whom he never named — developed a tender friendship, and throughout the documentary, Foster shares the lessons he learned from his little mollusk pal.
Foster is the co-founder of the Sea Change Project, a nonprofit group that aims to protect marine life and their ocean habitat. “My Octopus Teacher” earned Foster an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and boosted the visibility of his conservation efforts.
The wolf is neither a saint nor a sinner except to those who want to make it so.L. David Mech
Much like Jane Goodall, L. David Mech is revered for his contributions to science as well as his dedication to his research. The American biologist has been studying wolves since 1958, tracking them in places such as Yellowstone National Park, Alaska, Isle Royale, and Minnesota.
Mech, who is the founder of the International Wolf Center, spent 25 summers observing wolves in close proximity, learning about their social structures and dynamics, and notably debunking the myth of the “alpha wolf.” He has published 11 books about wolves, the most recent being a collaboration with Douglas W. Smith and Daniel R. MacNulty, titled “Wolves on the Hunt: The Behavior of Wolves Hunting Wild Prey.”
I want more people to fall in love with the ocean … My goal in life is for everyone to be talking about the ocean at least once a day. We should be gossiping about the ocean!Asha de Vos
As the first and (so far) only Sri Lankan with a doctoral degree in marine mammal research, Asha de Vos understands the responsibility she holds in the ever-evolving field of marine conservation. In 2008, she founded the Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project, which focuses on the long-term study of blue whales in the northern Indian Ocean.
Through her research, she found that a unique population of blue whales, previously believed to migrate annually, actually remain in Sri Lanka’s waters year-round. Her research led to the International Whaling Commission prioritizing conservation of the Sri Lankan blue whale, and she’s begun working with the Sri Lankan government to minimize the threat posed against whales by ship strikes.
For humans, the Arctic is a harshly inhospitable place, but the conditions there are precisely what polar bears require to survive — and thrive. “Harsh” to us is “home” for them.Sylvia Earle
Sometimes referred to by her colleagues as “Her Deepness” or “The Sturgeon General,” Sylvia Earle has devoted much of her life to studying the ocean and the creatures — big and small — that dwell within it. She was named the first “Hero for the Planet” by “TIME” magazine in 1998, and she was featured in the 2021 Netflix Original documentary “Seaspiracy,” which delved into the impact humans have on marine life.
In 2012, she penned a “HuffPost” piece calling on the public to rethink what they know about the Arctic, invoking the plight of polar bears as a means of discussing the relationship between fossil fuels and global warming.
Elephants will figure something out just like humans. They’ll figure out how to solve a problem, and they will communicate and share that knowledge to the others in the family. And then that knowledge will be transmitted for generations.Dr. Paula Kahumbu
Not many people in the world can claim to have a doctorate in elephants, but Dr. Paula Kahumbu is one such person. The Nairobi-born wildlife conservationist has dedicated her life to campaigning for elephants and other wildlife, launching the Hands Off Our Elephants campaign in 2014 alongside former first lady of Kenya Margaret Kenyatta.
She was chosen to host the 2023 National Geographic miniseries “Secrets of the Elephants,” which examines groups of elephants found in various ecological environments throughout Africa and Asia, including rainforests, deserts, and savannas.
Featured image credit: Star Tribune via Getty Images