Survival of the Cutest

A Treehouse collaboration with tWild

If you scrolled through your Instagram feed or Facebook timeline last month, chances are, you have seen news regarding the Australian bushfires and how this tragedy affected almost a billion animals. As Australia comes to a standstill, the world has not, with donations flooding in from all around the globe. The main beneficiary?


If you have made a donation, good! That money will help the Koala population recover from this disaster. But what about the other animals? Are they also worth your time and money? What compelled us to donate to these charities working with koalas?


You cannot deny that most people find Koalas adorable, and I’m with you on this. However, when discussing conservation, awareness of our innate biases is important. By perceiving koalas or any other animal as cute, we prioritize them over other not-as-cute species. As a result of human biases in biodiversity conservation, only a handful of species directly benefit from the money channeled to different organisations across the world.

Let us look at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), arguably the world’s leading NGO championing conservation. WWF’s iconic giant panda logo has become synonymous with conservation, but what if the logo was of an insect? What if it was a critically endangered and vital to the survival of many species? Chances are, you will not donate the same amount (or any amount) to such an organisation. By using the giant panda as their flagship species, WWF has captured the hearts of many, ensuring that donations would pour in. Hopefully, through this examination, you would realise that many organisations are actually appealing to our love for cute animals to secure donations. That is not to say that your money is inappropriately used or that you should not donate to such organisations but we should be more aware of our personal biases in conservation efforts.

Having raised over a million dollars on GoFundMe, the Port Macqurie Koala Hospital has documented its use of the funds raised, including the setting up of automatic drinking stations for thirsty koalas which have been affected by the fires. While that is great news, it begs the question of whether this money could have been channelled elsewhere, like the very firefighting efforts that would end the crisis.

Regarding conservation, our bias is strongest when the target species is cute, aesthetically pleasing, or resemblant of ourselves. This makes us prone to fall for marketing schemes that exploit our innate biases. We should search up the ecological roles of the said species to evaluate if they are worth the money to conserve. Keystone species such as elephants play a major role in their ecological niches and their loss would spell disaster for their ecosystems. While I do not say that you should not donate to wildlife conservation, we should be mindful about why we are conserving these species—and it certainly should not be based on aesthetics. There is also a resounding and unfounded fear of insects but many insect species which play crucial roles in their environments are disappearing without us even knowing or caring. Just consider: That insect you carelessly killed might just be of a vulnerable species.

There is a need to reevaluate our position and role in nature. By placing ourselves on a pedestal—as the almighty—we are abusing our power to change and transform ecologies into those we deem appropriate. By considering ourselves separate and ruling over nature, we forget that humans are a part of nature, skewing and thwarting the human-nature relationship. Recognising these personal biases in conservation efforts helps species that require help the most. 

All that said, I am not asking anyone to stop donating to conservation efforts. I’m simply asking for us to be aware of our innate biases that affect our perceptions of issues around us—especially conservation.

Header and feature image by Hanniel Lim. Original logo by World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The designer claims fair use. The WWF logo has been parodied publicly before. A parody of the logo on Uncyclopedia has been online since 2009.

About the author

Willis Lau is a Year 1 Environmental Studies Major (BES) that is interested in examining the way we interact with nature and the environment. An advocate of conservation, he is a part of Tembusu Wildlife Association (tWild) and BES Drongos and hopes to use writing to influence the way we look at the environment and issues around us.