Being popular in the animal kingdom can be a double-edged sword.

Species that are considered "charismatic" — like lions, tigers and elephants — often appear in marketing and advertising campaigns. But their ubiquitousness may have a negative impact on conservation. Because people see images of these popular animals so frequently in daily life, they may have no clue that they're in danger of extinction.

A new international study suggests that the popularity of these animals may contribute to the species’ demise. The study was published in the journal PLOS Biology.

The most 'charismatic' animals

panda With fewer than 2,000 remaining individuals, the panda's future remains particularly uncertain. (Photo: Foreverhappy/Shutterstock)

The concept of charismatic species is relatively new in conservation biology, lead author Franck Courchamp of the University of Paris told BBC News. "Charismatic," according to the researchers, refers to species attracting the largest interest and empathy from the public.

"There is a regular claim that the most charismatic species are diverting most of the time and resources [in conservation]. I started wondering whether this was true and followed by better results in conservation," he said.

To find out what those species are, the researchers used online surveys and school questionnaires to ask people which animals they thought were the most charismatic. They also looked at the websites from zoos in the 100 largest cities in the world to see which animals were represented online. Finally, they counted the animals featured on the covers of animated movies produced by Disney and Pixar.

Because the researchers used the term "animal" instead of "species," some of the animals represented more than one species.

The 10 most "charismatic" animals:

  • Tiger
  • Lion
  • Elephant (three species)
  • Giraffe
  • Leopard
  • Panda
  • Cheetah
  • Polar bear
  • Gray wolf
  • Gorilla (two species)

Nine of the animals that made the list are classed as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. Only the wolf was classified as least concern.

Researchers asked survey respondents and students polled if they thought the animals were endangered and roughly half of them were wrong in assessing the animals' status.

A virtual population

Many of the most charismatic animals are so common in pop culture and marketing that they may be part of a deceptive "virtual population" that is thriving more than in real life, said Courchamp.

The researchers found, for example, that a French citizen will see an average of 4.4 lions each day through photos, logos, cartoons, magazines, brands and other sources. That means that people see on average two to three times as many "virtual" lions in one year than the total population of wild lions living in West Africa.

"Unknowingly, companies using giraffes, cheetahs or polar bears for marketing purposes may be actively contributing to the false perception that these animals are not at risk of extinction, and therefore not in need of conservation," Courchamp said in a statement.

What's the solution?

young elephant playing When we see animals everywhere in media and pop culture, we tend to think they're everywhere in nature. (Photo: rbrown10/Shutterstock)

The researchers propose that companies that use images of threatened species for marketing should provide information about conservation and they should perhaps even donate money to help protect the species.

It may be difficult to do, but it's not unheard of. Earlier this year, Lacoste created a limited-edition collection of polo shirts featuring 10 different endangered and/or threatened animals in place of the company's iconic green crocodile.

Maybe the idea will catch on and raise awareness, the researchers say.

"The appearance of these beloved animals in stores, in movies, on television, and on a variety of products seems to be deluding the public into believing they are doing okay," said William Ripple, a distinguished professor of forest ecology at Oregon State University and a co-author of the study.

"If we don’t act in a concerted effort to save these species, that may soon be the only way anyone will see them."

Mary Jo DiLonardo writes about everything from health to parenting — and anything that helps explain why her dog does what he does.