My 9-year-old daughter, a consummate animal lover, is such a softie that when I showed her a picture of the hideous-looking blobfish and told her it had just been granted the title World’s Ugliest Animal, she immediately said “Oh, I feel so sorry for that fish! People are just so mean!” Sophia has a point – and I do appreciate her compassion, but let me defend the benefit of being gifted the dubious title of being the world’s ugliest anything!
A British group called the Ugly Animal Preservation Society may sound like a joke from a late night talk show, but it is sincere in its efforts to protect not only the earth’s biodiversity, but also to highlight our planet’s less lovable, but often equally important species. The panda get too much attention, they argue. The Society’s mission statement thus says it is dedicated to “raising the profile of some of Mother Nature’s more aesthetically-challenged children.” I like that. And so does, Sophia, when I finally explained the organization’s mission to her.
It is true that charismatic megafauna like pandas, tigers and harp seals get most of the conservation attention, and often at the expense of smaller, less charming and sometimes more ecologically-critical species. One naturalist, Chris Packham, has actually publicly declared that species like pandas are just too expensive to save and they are taking away money from more ecologically important species:
I don’t want the panda to die out. I want species to stay alive – that’s why I get up in the morning. So if pandas can survive, that would be great. But let’s face it: conservation, both nationally and globally, has a limited amount of resources, and I think we’re going to have to make some hard, pragmatic choices.
The panda-effect on conservation fundraising is exactly why the Ugly Animal Preservation Society tries to highlight animals that lack charisma, but are also in dire need of our support.