Highlighting the plight of marine animals to assist conservation

I have always loved the ocean and pretty much all marine life (bar a few creepy critters). Here in Australia the beach and ocean are very important for us culturally as well as economically. Unfortunately humans have been abusing and trying to ‘master’ the ocean for centuries. This results in a wide range of problems including pollution, loss of marine life and much more.

Luckily we have a secret weapon to use in our management and conservation efforts – marine animals! Marine animals attract significant attention in ocean conservation planning and therefore are often used politically to promote designation of marine protected areas (Hooker & Gerber 2004). Highlighting the effects our actions have on animals and their environments is a very effective way to raise money and awareness. Often the larger marine animals such as seals, sharks, whales, birds etc. are used to front campaigns, however a wide range of plants and animals benefit where protected marine areas are set up.

Case in point: Could you say no to protecting this little guys habitat?

Animals affecting by the Deep Horizon Oil Spill

Most of us would be familiar with BP’s recent oil spill or Deepwater Horizon spill, which devastated a range of marine life. This is just one example of how humans have damaged marine environments. If you recall the images from magazines and news stories, you would often see birds covered in the oil. Birds are particularly susceptible to oil spills as it prevents their feathers from insulating them and the often die of hypothermia. The media make a conscious decision to use these images of animals suffering at our hands as it makes a strong connection with the audience.

In the past there was a lack of knowledge surrounding the oceans and all their secrets, however now we know better. A major concern for our oceans at the moment is the effect that climate change will have on them. Issues include ocean acidification (see what our friends at Skeptical Science (SS) have to say), coral bleaching (SS), sea level rise (SS), changes to ocean circulation patterns (see my ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ post for an extreme case) and potentially many more!

The polar bear is a great example of animals being used to drive campaigns against environmental problems. There are countless images and documentaries that look at how global warming is threatening the existence of polar bears. The heating of our atmosphere due to human carbon dioxide emissions is resulting in the reduction of their Arctic Ice habitat, which has continually been a target for different media formats. David Attenborough’s ‘Climate Change‘ documentary is an example that states starving polar bears are the first victims of climate change.

The 'face' of climate change.

This video is a great example of how the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Coral Sea campaign was a raging success. They used imagery of beautiful corals and highlighted the decline of reef sharks in the area to gain public support and push the government to declare the area a marine protected zone (which means it is protected from destructive fishing and activities like mining exploration). Australian news picked up the campaign which featured on radio stations, in popular magazines and it made prime-time news around the country, as well as international news.

Please let me know if you think media harnessing this ‘guilt’ factor of animal plights is an effective way of getting results?


Hooker, SK and Gerber, LR 2004, ‘Marine Reserves as a Tool for Ecosystem-Based Management: The Potential Importance of Megafauna’, BioScience, vol. 54, no. 1, pp. 27 – 39. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier.

Images in Header

Image 1: Jellyfish, 2009, ‘Photography Match’, Retrieved from: http://www.photography-match.com/views/images/gallery/Mauve_Stinger_Jellyfish_Edithburg_South_Australia.jpg [20 September 2011].
Image 2: Scuba Diving, 2011, ‘Scuba Diving in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef’, Retrieved from: http://s94572.gridserver.com/worldwide/top-10-worldwide-destinations/australia [20 September 2011].
Image 3: AllPosters, 2010, ‘Coral Reef’, Retrieved from: http://www.gondwananet.com/australian-animals-coral-reef.html [20 September 2011].
Image 4: Enhar, n.d., ‘Wave’, Retrieved from: http://www.enhar.com.au/index.php?page=marine [20 September 2011].
Image 5: Australia Travel and Tourism Network, n.d., ‘Great Barrier Reef’, Retrieved from: http://www.attn.com.au/index.php?town=17 [20 September 2011].
Image 6: Rebecca, 2011, ‘Wishlist: Ningaloo’, Retrieved from: http://aroundtheworldwithrebecca.blogspot.com [20 September 2011].
Image 7: Osprey, 2010, ‘It’s time to give our oceans a break’, Retrieved from: http://blog.ospreypacks.com/?tag=ocean [20 September 2011].
Image 8: SeaPics, 2010, ‘Green Sea Turtle’, Retrieved from: http://seapics.com/gallery/Reptilia/Testudines/Cryptodira/Chelonioidea/Cheloniidae/green-sea-turtles/green-sea-turtle-search.html [20 September 2011].


20 comments on “Highlighting the plight of marine animals to assist conservation

  1. Hi Ashfonty,

    A great topic to raise, is it wrong to use cute images of animals in order to influence humans to change their behaviour. I think the answer is no, it’s not wrong. People are influenced by and are constantly seeking connections, connections to other people, to the environment, and connections with other living things. In my opinion it can only be a good thing to put a cute animal face to a worthy cause, it forces us humans to connect with the animal, which we normally would anyway if we were living like we were 1000 years ago. It makes us realise even though we no longer have these everyday connections with animals in the wild, they are still influenced by our behaviour.

    • I think I agree and disagree with this comment.
      I agree in that I don’t think it’s wrong to use “cute images of animals” in order to influence behaviours. It’s part of the wonderful world of advertising. It can be argued in a similar way to having stereotypically attractive people advertising exercise equipment in infomercials.
      I don’t agree with the statement that “It makes us realise even though we no longer have these everyday connections with animals in the wild, they are still influenced by our behaviour.” As I said before, I think it’s more of an advertising technique. I’d compare it to the RSPCA ad (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBL3BpF9QYY). It’s not that people connect, so much as it tugs at our “omg-it’s-adorable” emotional centre. Similar things are used to sell Oxfam etc.

      • I feel like advertising techniques are conservation efforts in this instance. Provided the money raised is actually being used effectively in proven conservation efforts.
        6.30 with George Negus last night had an interesting story about a lady that was trying a new method for Asian Tiger conservation. Current conservation efforts for these tigers have no been very successful at all, yet larger NGO’s have tried to stop this women trying something new because it’s not the way they want to do it. So I think it can be a bad thing for these conservation organizations to have so much power (and money).

  2. Hi Ash, perhaps in some, maybe even many cases marine causes are doing a good job of using cute animals and the guilt factor to convince people of their message, however it doesn’t always work as you would expect. For one thing, think about PETA; they have many shocking campaigns using cute animals to try to convince people of their (in my opinion) extremist views. Do they work? In a word, no. People tune out and think “I don’t want to know”.

    Second, I would say that whilst I am pro-biodiversity and conserving the natural environment (particularly the oceans), I am not really all that susceptible to the “awww” factor. I am largely unconvinced when it comes to spending large sums of money to save a single species. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for saving the environment as a whole, but I don’t think things like intensive captive breeding programmes for an evolutionarily weak species is the next best thing. This is why I find that images of beautiful reefs, and the thought of them being destroyed a tonne more effective than images like the “cute” little ranga seal. Surely I am not alone in my coldheartedness towards warmblooded animals, so it would be useful to remember that sob stories about seals wont convince everyone.

  3. But do you not agree that those ‘evolutionarily weak species’ may not have been so weak if it weren’t for our destructive nature? How can we save the environment as a whole if we aren’t trying to save individual species?

  4. While I largely agree with Rosanna87 that putting a “face” (particularly a cute one) on an issue is an effective way of connecting people to the cause, I also agree with clayte01 regarding PETA’s shock/guilt campaigns (I HATE those horribly depressing commercials).

    I’d also like to point out that while adorable furry animals have helped establish some protections, it’s a very limited tool in the battle for environmental welfare; what happens to an area that doesn’t have any sweet little mascots? If people become used to just saving the cute mammals, then what will motivate a public to help an environment that is already devoid of those creatures?

  5. I agree that it becomes a bit of an issue for some environments that lack ‘adorable’ and larger animals. But there are other ways to protect animals and their environments i.e. accessing grants from governments. I think the more charismatic animals just make it easier to raise private funds, although it certainly doesn’t make them more important.
    I don’t have any proof but I hope that the big organisations that use these animals in their campaigns, also use some funds raised to help out those smaller environments and less charismatic creatures.

  6. A very interesting topic which might play on the emotions of some people. I would not object to the use of cute animals to raise awareness of environmental issues. However, the driving force is money and the consumer society. How many of us would give up products and conveniences which depend on oil products after the BP spill?

    I would also like to see putting things into context, such as, what will happen if why do not change our ways and what will the cost be to our society?

    • sparti08, you raise a few good points.
      Personally, after watching the footage after the oil spill I felt bad but didn’t even think to stop using my car or buying plastic water bottles. If helping becomes too much of an inconvenience (eg. taking 3 times as long to get to uni) then I probably won’t do it, but maybe I’m just a selfish creature.
      Contrary to this, I have recently realised I have a compulsive habit of turning off switches at unused power points. If I walk out of a room knowing that I have left a unnecessary light or switch on I feel terrible and have to go back to turn it off. I think this is because I feel like I have a responsibility to the environment and I’m trying to prevent something from happening rather than trying to fix it. But, I also know the effect that climate change could have on me and my family. Maybe, this positive action is me being self-centered or maybe other people are the same and the way to evoke action is to make it personal.


  7. Hi Ashfonty,

    I think using cute animals is a great tactic to pique people’s curiousity. It certainly is one advertising technique that has been around the block a far bit! I agree with Evie that campaigns such as some extreme PETA ones can go too far and ruin the purpose, by putting people off. This often makes me change channel or take a coffee break.

    When done well, though, (Such as the polar bear on the small block of ice), I think it can be a very rousing technique. However, using guilt is one tactic that is not so effective, in my opinion. I am not inclined to take action when someone makes me feel guilty or bad. Instead, campaigns that strive to provide a sense of unity for groups of people, encourage or simply spread a ‘nice’ message, seem to be more effective. Such as that whale campaign where people were encouraged to send in a picture of them doing the ‘whale flipper’ gesture with their hands. (I can’t really explain it), which brought a sense of unity to people trying to help save the whales. I much prefer ad campaigns like that, that give you a warm, fuzzy feeling. (Not sure if it raised funds though – maybe just awareness).

  8. I am curious to know how effective these guilt campaigns are. I agree with a lot of the comments that are being made. I like looking at the cute animals but I am not going to sponsor them. I think polc01 might be correct when stating that these ads could be good for raising awareness, so I was wondering if instead of using these guilt ads to get your money if the guilt ads could be used to guilt people into changing their behaviors. Instead of saying “for one dollar a day you can help build sammy the shark a home, you could say for 1 less minute of shower a day, you can help…”. That is a campaign I might be able to afford.

    • I just re-read your comment shortfletch and I agree. I think the campaign to raise awareness about the environment needs to branch out a little with respect to the tactics they use.

    • I agree to Shortfletch. I think the pictures and videos you put are affective to remind people that they are in danger but it is hard to change our behaviour by these advertisements.
      I agree that we have to stop damaging our nature but as you say, on the other hands, some people, especially old people say it is none of their bussiness because they would be dead by the time of the worst situation.
      Do you think they are selfish?
      In my opinion, that is how they grew up and what we have to do is to motivate young people to change their behaviour because it is much easier to change the behaviour when they are young.
      So, if I had to make these ads, I would target young people more than adults. What adults can do is to make the environment for kids to change their behaviour.

  9. I agree with a lot of what has already been said. I think that using a ‘cute face’ to raise awareness about the environment is a good idea and that it has been quite effective.

    However, I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to compare these campaigns to those ‘shock’ campaigns of PETA and other animal rights organisations. They are both used for very different purposes and although they both guilt-trip you to a certain extent, it’s definitely not in the same way.

    At the same time, the constant bombardment of using animals to raise awareness in the public could be getting a little ‘old’. Perhaps it’s time to take a fresh look at how we raise awareness about the environment, and try not to rely on guilt-tripping people into support of what is a good cause.

    • I feel like there are much more interesting ad campaigns out there these days. They would cater to people like Evie who prefer a holistic view of the environment and the conservation efforts that are needed.
      It will be interesting to see what these NGO’s come up with in the future considering the increasing threats of climate change. Maybe we need to start focussing more on the effects that it has on us… however World Wildlife Foundation do have a focus on animals so we can’t really blame them for using animals in their campaigns!

  10. It seems most of us are positive about using “cute” animals for raising awareness, umm, let me say I hate those emotional campaign strategy.

    I know several “lies of media”, such as a famous photo, a waterbird soaked by oil, repeatedly used by media when oil rig accident occurred in norway, but those were not an image from the sight, it was shot in mid-east, in the time of the gulf war.

    You may think this is not significant point, but it affects credibility and acceptance of media. Since emotional frame could be used easily and does not necessary stands on facts, may twisted easily.

    Emotional framing may works effectively in short term, but if those are not told honestly, message itself also loses its credibility.
    Media strategy of the PETA has talked repeatedly in recent conversation, and I think this is good example. I don’t mean to say they are telling lie, but if those shock framing are used continuously, general people may tend to avoid their coverage, and the message also may rejected. I think that is the worst scenario, though in similar way, if we keep using emotional frame, like cute animals without deep thought, general public may bored about that, and tend to ignore the message itself.

    As supplemental method, cute images could work well, but facts and concrete argument must have higher priority I think in term of scientific story.

  11. I have to admit, I am one of those who melt when it comes to cute animal photos!

    As a young child, I reckon the cute puppies and kittens portrayed on the RSPCA campaign posters, badges, stickers and decals played a huge role in getting me to be convinced that these poor defenseless creatures needed my help (and back then, my parent’s money). Of course puppies and kittens aren’t the only animals in need of care and protection against cruelty, but having flagship species I could easily and emotionally identify with helped to convince me that all pets deserved love and care and a good life. So yes, I think with children especially, putting an appealing “face” to the campaign can work well.

    A question that many conservation biologists are concerned about is: what about the “ugly”, un-cute, and non-charismatic species? Studies have shown that in zoos, people tend to feel love, compassion, and a greater desire to protect larger and cuter animals that are closer in relation to humans and have the capacity for thought/feeling/pain. However, if the strategy was changed to promoting a sense of wonder and respect for animals, this decreased people’s selectivity for which species they would feel led to protect.

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