The University of Alabama's team mascot, the elephant, is now being used to help raise awareness (and funding) for elephant conservation. Does that work?

Furry Animals, Fuzzy Science

Last January, as the University of Alabama and Clemson University went head to head for the college football national championship, an unusual social media campaign emerged: one focused on wildlife. There amid the breathless Twitter and Facebook posts about the players and coaches were prominent pictures of the teams’ respective mascots — the Alabama elephant and the Clemson tiger. Students from both schools uploaded images of themselves holding signs in support of wildlife conservation, and they spread under the hashtag #protectourmascot.

In the world of college sports, the elephant and the tiger — along with several mascots at other major schools — signify powerful and revered athletic programs, with hundreds of thousands of dedicated fans across the country. But the animals themselves are struggling. Though wild tiger populations are estimated to have grown by nearly 700 since 2010, there are still just about 3,900 remaining, all of them vulnerable to habitat destruction, trafficking, and hunting. The population of African elephants, under pressure from poaching and development, dropped to below 352,300 in a recent census covering most of their range — far lower than previously thought.

These grim realities inspired a pair of student groups at the rival schools — Alabama’s Tide for Tusks and Clemson’s chapter of the National Tigers for Tigers Coalition — to team up and use the National Championship to publicize the plight of their mascots’ namesake species. “The teams’ athletes may be winning on the field, but their mascots are losing the big game in the wild,” said Sean Carnell, then of Tigers for Tigers, in a press release issued on the eve of the game. “Despite our differences on the field, we can all agree that we love our mascots and want to protect them in the wild before it’s too late.”

According to Clemson’s Tigers for Tigers Facebook page, more than a million people shared the hashtag.

The campaign is an example of a novel conservation strategy that has been gaining traction at U.S. universities since it began in the late 1990s. Its champions are a diverse, loosely organized assortment of student groups and nonprofits, all organized around a simple goal: tap into the vast publicity and resources generated by college athletics to help fund wildlife conservation. But while participants see it as an effective way to raise awareness among people who may not think much about wildlife — namely, football fans, university administrators, and students — some conservation advocates suggest that public education efforts like this one rarely have the impact that proponents hope, particularly when the goals of any particular campaign are unclear.

“As true tiger fans, it is our collective responsibility to save wild tigers from extinction,” the group Tigers for Tigers declares on its website. “The tiger is our identity.”

Visual: Matthew Blouir/Flickr/CC

Still, supporters of #protectourmascot and allied movements insist that the effort is worthwhile — and that making use of the existing iconography of school mascots to capture hearts and minds for a higher cause only makes sense.

After all, conservationists themselves have long made use of mascots. The wildlife-focused nonprofit Rare, created in 1973, pioneered a series of “pride campaigns,” exercises in social marketing modeled after the success of Smokey Bear and other advertising initiatives. These campaigns made heavy use of parrots, panther groupers, and other mascots — often brought to life by volunteers wearing elaborate, human-sized costumes — to push sustainable land management and the protection of endangered species in the developing world.

Rare boasts that it has launched over 300 such programs in 50 countries.

The rationale is simple: Most of the threats facing endangered species — overfishing, poaching, habitat loss — can’t be solved by individuals, says Kevin Green, senior manager of behavioral and social science at Rare. Instead, he continues, “we’re selling new and more sustainable behavioral norms for resource management.” That might mean encouraging local hunters to select different targets, for example, or urging local businesses to dump less trash. An effective “pride” program encourages people to rally around a threatened species or ecosystem, and mascots provide a visible and familiar symbol for collective ideals.

That’s the theory, anyway — though there’s little scientific research on whether it has an effect. An exception is a 2015 study by researchers at the University of Delaware, in which student participants were asked to play the role of factory owners who could earn greater profits the more they polluted, and would be accordingly praised or shamed by different mascots. The researchers found that for the Delaware students, the mascot most effective in lowering pollution was their own Delaware Blue Hen, YoUDee. Kent Messer, co-director of the university’s Center for Behavioral and Experimental Agri-Environmental Research and one of the study’s researchers, said it’s a preliminary finding at best, but it suggests that mascots rooted in the community can be enlisted as environmental advocates.

As it stands, the costumed sports mascot is a surprisingly recent invention. The first recognizable ones, including the San Diego Chicken and the Phillie Phanatic, appeared in the early 1970s, and they were rapidly adopted by professional and college sports teams, many of which had long used real animals — sometimes live, sometimes stuffed — instead.

But it wasn’t until 1999 that someone recognized the potential synergy between animal mascots and the wider conservation movement. That’s when an ecology grad student and bodybuilder at the University of Missouri named Mike Baltz teamed up with a faculty member, Mary Ratnaswamy, to start Mizzou Tigers for Tigers. “There was a real interesting disconnect between the tiger, its representation everywhere on campus, and the fact that it was an endangered species,” Baltz said. “I really felt — probably naively, but what the heck — that a real opportunity to fund conservation existed here, by tapping into a set of donors or funding avenues that had never really been tapped. The dots hadn’t been connected.”

He and Ratnaswamy laid out their case in an article in the Spring 2000 volume of the Wildlife Society Bulletin. Around 30 percent of large universities had big predators as mascots, they pointed out. (Tigers were especially common — at the time, 68 colleges and universities used them. The number is now 56.) Yet these campuses rarely got involved in efforts to save the animals they’d chosen to represent them, perhaps because students and fans didn’t associate their furry mascots with real species. By connecting athletics programs with the research community and other alumni and student networks, they wrote, universities could provide financial and technical assistance to conservation programs on the ground. And the effects could reach beyond singular species like tigers: Many mascots are “umbrella species,” like the brown bear or rhino, sharing a habitat with all manner of species that may be less beloved but are no less endangered.

Clemson University produced a short video about its campus-based Tigers for Tigers campaign.

While Clemson already had a student group devoted to tiger conservation, Mizzou Tigers for Tigers was the first such program with the weight of a university behind it. It began by focusing on outreach and developing its own student group, passing out information at athletic events and bringing in researchers for lectures. Long-range goals included charitable efforts and student and faculty exchanges with universities in tiger-range countries.

Since then, Tigers for Tigers has grown into a national coalition with chapters at eight universities — including Clemson, Mizzou, and Louisiana State University — run by the National Wildlife Refuge Association, a federal nonprofit that works with the Fish and Wildlife Service to promote conservation in America and abroad. In 2006, the Mizzou chapter received $1 million from an alumnus for training conservation workers in tiger country. The coalition has also devoted a lot of time to lobbying for legislation like the Big Cats Public Safety Act and the Wildlife Trafficking Enforcement Act, both of which have been introduced in Congress.

According to Carnell, formerly of Clemson and now a branding and marketing associate at the National Wildlife Refuge Association, student groups have successfully lobbied to increase appropriations for the Fish and Wildlife Service from $9.1 million in 2014 to $11.1 million in 2016. As the Tigers for Tigers coalition website proudly points out, all of this rests largely on the communal efforts of student groups across the nation.

Alabama’s own Tide for Tusks, founded in 2014 by Randy Mecredy and Reata Strickland, raises money to support the African Wildlife Trust and its Ivory Orphans elephant orphanage, the only one of its kind in Tanzania. “Over the last year we’ve probably sent about $20,000 to African Wildlife Trust, mostly through individual donations from across the country,” Mecredy said.

For all of this, it remains hard to know whether these initiatives are spurring effective change in the real world. For example, the 2016 Protect Our Mascots campaign did very well by public relations standards, raking in over a million views on social media. But as Rare’s Green points out, “You have to use these techniques that take you a step further. Climate change is a great example. We know so much about anthropogenic climate change now. And yet, we’ve solved so very little.”

It’s also difficult to translate sports mascot conservation into direct action. Americans exist at a far remove from the plight of elephants and tigers, so there’s no obvious behavioral norm to change — as Green notes, not many Alabama alumni are buying ivory these days. Universities could potentially follow Rare’s model by using their mascots to encourage state and local conservation initiatives, but this opportunity has gone largely untapped.

Instead, the impulse to encourage direct action seems to have translated to a focus on empowering student groups. This may seem like a smart use of resources — students are an easy source of grass-roots activism, and they’re invested in their school’s mascots — but a closer look at Tigers for Tigers reveals the drawbacks of the approach. While the Clemson chapter is going strong, others are in trouble; even Mizzou Tigers for Tigers is hemorrhaging members and receiving little support from either the administration or the national coalition, according to its president, Kali Griffith, a senior majoring in animal science.

Given the inherent instability of student groups, the involvement of some sort of permanent organization, working alongside them, might be necessary to truly further conservation goals. Tide for Tusks, for example, pairs its student organization with an national nonprofit, which some proponents consider a potentially a more lasting approach.

Still, the National Wildlife Refuge Association intends to double down on its strategy of focusing on local student groups — in part by shifting some of its funding away from the national coalition and diverting it toward campus-based organizations. “I don’t think we’re out of it,” Carnell said. “We really want to make sure that [Tigers for Tigers] is a student-driven and student-focused organization.”

Asher Elbein is a writer based in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in The Oxford American, the Texas Observer, and The Bitter Southerner.