Misconceived Species and Where to Find Them

Most wildlife populations are in decline, largely due to threats such as habitat loss, climate change and overharvesting1, but also due to increasing levels of human-wildlife conflict globally. The media portrayal of wildlife is a key factor influencing and shaping public perception and opinion, and thus it holds a central role for the effective conservation of biodiversity. Since newspapers tend to adopt the editorial tactic of sensationalism – whereby news’ titles and contents are exaggerated to attract a greater number of viewers and readers – it becomes inevitable that some wildlife will receive bad press, especially when concerning human-wildlife interactions.

Bad press can distort the public perception, instil fear in people and fuel antagonism and animosity towards certain animals, ultimately exacerbating already high and increasing levels of human-wildlife conflict. In the long-term, this may jeopardise the conservation of species and lead to biodiversity loss.

A visual map of the relationships between themes and concepts derived from media articles on sharks (2010-2014). The lines indicate connectivity between concepts; the shorter the lines, the stronger the conjunctural nature of the concepts in the text. The themes most closely related to ‘sharks’ were ‘attack’, ‘beach’ and ‘research’. Credits: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2015.09.016

Species that regularly receive bad and deceitful media coverage include sharks and wolves – though this list is by no means comprehensive. It is not a coincidence that these animals are also amongst the most-feared ones by the public and amidst the ones most persecuted by management. Nonetheless, sensationalism aside, there are two crucial points to raise when discussing how wildlife behaves around people – e.g., fearfully or aggressively – that may help making the public discourse less value-laden.

First, scientific evidence tells us a different story than the one narrated by the media. For instance, most shark attacks on people are non-fatal and actually end in no injury. For this, some researchers are supporting a shift away from using the term “shark attack” and instead adopt a less loaded phrase such as “shark bite”, since the former term “can create a perception of a premeditated crime, lowering the public’s threshold for accepting shark bite incidents as random acts of nature”2. Furthermore, when the phrase “shark attack” is used, the public is led to conclude that the shark encounter resulted in lethal or major injuries to the victim, while in fact the survival rate from shark bites is estimated to be around 87%3. Some researchers even suggested classifying shark bites into different types such as “hit and run”, “sneak attack” and “bump and bite”3.

Marine biologist Ocean Ramsey joins TODAY to talk about her and her team of divers’ encounter off the coast of Hawaii with what could be the largest great white shark on the planet. “It fills my heart with joy and takes my breath away,” she says.

Observations of sharks in proximity to human swimmers in the ocean also show that the animals do not usually take an interest in people. For example, in South Africa – the world’s great white shark hotspot – the Shark Spotters program has reviewed more than 1,100 sightings of white sharks swimming around surfers and near bathers. Bathers were alerted and got out of the water, and the visiting sharks swam away4.

On a similar note, the number of non-rabid wolf attacks on people that have occurred in the last century in Europe can be counted on the fingers of one hand5. Over 17,000 wolves are estimated to roam the continent6.

Second, through incessant hunting pressure on wildlife populations over the last century or so, we have likely been selecting for the survival of the most elusive individuals, since the most “aggressive” or least wary individuals were the ones most likely to be shot and killed possibly even before they were able to reproduce. This may be particularly the case for wolves, which were considered vermin for most of the 19th and 20th century and were almost hunted down to extinction across world’s regions. Some research even suggested that high levels of human activity can create a spatial refuge for prey species right because predators prefer to avoid people7.

Farmer Ilmari Takkala and “the last wolf in Central Finland” he killed in Karstula. Credits: https://bit.ly/31d9vQ0

It’s hard to get rid of the feeling of fear when one thinks about carnivores because it’s an evolutionary response deeply engrained in Homo sapiens. While appreciating the science and statistics behind the very low probabilities of being attacked by a shark, wolf or another carnivore may make one feel reassured, ultimately personal experiences (e.g., going on a hike or a swim without being “attacked”) may be the best way to fully dissipate one’s fears.

Meanwhile, recent research finds that attitudes towards sharks were positive after the screening of shark documentaries which gave a high profile to sharks from a conservation perspective, rather than the traditional sensational negative representation of sharks in the media8. Similarly, increased knowledge about sharks, which can be disseminated through initiatives such as “Shark Week”, can be effective at increasing public concern about shark conservation9. On this note, increasing environmental- and eco-awareness may bring hope for a less value-laden and more evidence-based public perception of wildlife.

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  1. https://wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/all_publications/living_planet_report_2018/
  2. Neff, C. and Hueter, R., 2013. Science, policy, and the public discourse of shark “attack”: a proposal for reclassifying human–shark interactions. Journal of environmental studies and sciences3(1), pp.65-73 https://doi.org/10.1007/s13412-013-0107-2
  3. Caldicott, D.G., Mahajani, R. and Kuhn, M., 2001. The anatomy of a shark attack: a case report and review of the literature. Injury32(6), pp.445-453 https://doi.org/10.1016/S0020-1383(01)00041-9
  4. https://sharkspotters.org.za/
  5. Linnell, J.D. and Alleau, J., 2016. Predators that kill humans: myth, reality, context and the politics of wolf attacks on people. In Problematic Wildlife (pp. 357-371). Springer, Cham.
  6. https://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/conservation/species/carnivores/conservation_status.htm
  7. Muhly, T.B., Semeniuk, C., Massolo, A., Hickman, L. and Musiani, M., 2011. Human activity helps prey win the predator-prey space race. PLoS One6(3), p.e17050 https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0017050
  8. Friedrich, L.A., Jefferson, R. and Glegg, G., 2014. Public perceptions of sharks: Gathering support for shark conservation. Marine Policy47, pp.1-7 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2014.02.003
  9. O’Bryhim, J.R. and Parsons, E.C.M., 2015. Increased knowledge about sharks increases public concern about their conservation. Marine Policy56, pp.43-47 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2015.02.007

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