If you could dedicate your life to saving one species, which would you choose?
National Geographic posed the question to its readers on Facebook, and the most common answer was somewhat surprising: bees.
People commented on just how important these insects are for ecosystems and its inhabitants: For instance three-fourths of flowering plants and about a third of crops rely on pollinators like honeybees to reproduce. As one reader wrote: “If bees go, we all go.”
A recent review published in the journal Biological Conservation found that nearly half of the bee species in the world are threatened with extinction. Seven species of Hawaiian yellow-faced bee, decimated by invasive species and habitat loss, were the first bees ever to be added to the U.S. Endangered Species List, in 2016.
Habitat loss drives bee loss, as well as pollution, which includes contamination from pesticides such as neonicotinoids. (Related: Why insect populations are plummeting—and why it matters.)
The second most popular result was elephants, which people appreciate for their intelligence and large family groups. Indeed, the animals are some of the smartest in the animal kingdom, and have extremely complex social interactions that allow them to form societies with different cultures. They can also distinguish age and ethnicity in human voices and use tools.
Tigers, all of which are endangered species, were ranked as the most charismatic animal in one 2018 study. Bengal tigers, the most populous subspecies, number fewer than 3,000 in the wild, though many more are found in captivity around the world. (See also: How do we decide which species are endangered or threatened?)
It’s perhaps no surprise that most people’s favorite animals are threatened or endangered, though many don’t realize it. Another 2018 paper in PLOS ONE looked at the most charismatic animals, as ranked by responses from thousands of participants. Authors asked if people knew the creatures were classified as vulnerable, threatened, or endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
While most people realized that polar bears and tigers were imperiled, large percentages didn’t realize the same was true of elephants (with one-third getting the wrong answer) and lions (58 percent were wrong).
Luckily, awareness and public outcry can have an effect. Tiger populations have increased in some areas in India and Nepal since 2010, though they’ve declined elsewhere, for example in areas of Southeast Asia. (How do we decide which species to save?)
Many people also mentioned that they would like to save humans, or, that humans were the only animal not worth saving.
The Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) is a critically endangered species, threatened by habitat loss and poaching.
In fact, humans received the most mentions of any “animal” species, and many comments voiced anger over people’s negative impact on wildlife.