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Birds and ‘cuddly’ animals more likely to be protected

17 November 2009

Animal species are dying out at top speed so many animals are sorely in need of conservation measures. However, it appears that certain animals are more likely to be protected by governments than others, even though they may all be equally rare. The physical appearance of the animal plays an important role, concludes biologist Edo Knegtering, who will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 27 November 2009.

Knegtering investigated the likelihood of various wild animal species receiving protection from the government. To that end he conducted research into the legal status of wild animal species in the Netherlands between 1857 and 1995. Was there actual protection? Or was it simply regulation of animal exploitation, for example for hunting or fishing? Or was the measure intended to control the spread of a species? Knegtering differentiated various groups of animals and also the average body size of species with a certain legal status. He also examined the degree to which various animal groups appear in recent Dutch environmental effect reports.

Interest groups

In order to chart the pressure of interest groups, Knegtering also conducted an experiment with representatives of the ANWB, the Society for the Preservation of Nature in the Netherlands [Natuurmonumenten] and the Dutch Confederation of Agriculture and Horticulture [LTO-Nederland]. He presented them with the conservation measures for sixteen different animal species – birds, mammals, insects and snails, all of various sizes and rarity. He asked the representatives to estimate to what degree their organization would support conservation measures by the government for certain species.
Based on the various subprojects, Knegtering concludes: ‘We tend to protect certain types of wild animals more than others. The actual body size of the animals also plays a role.’


Birds turned out to be the most valued animal species. They were the first to be legally protected and received the most extensive protection, they appeared most often in environmental effect reports and were the top favourite with interest groups. A good example is the nightingale – this bird was the first bird to be protected in the Netherlands, and protected the longest.
Within animal species, there is a tendency to protect larger species better than smaller ones. The bigger the bird, the more attention paid to it by interest groups. ‘The experiment revealed that interest groups consistently choose to protect the larger types within a species’, according to Knegtering.
Legislation, on the other hand, tends in the other direction – the law provides better protection to the smaller species. Knegtering: ‘This is possibly because larger species were more interesting to hunt or fish, and that’s why they received protection much later. The legislator probably often chose the most socially acceptable line.’


The ‘cuddle’ factor is certainly important, but there’s more to it than that. Birds, for example, clearly receive much more attention and protection than mammals, but the latter are generally regarded as cuddlier. Knegtering points out that the protection of mammals only really got underway with the Nature Conservation Act of 1973, whereas many birds have been protected since 1880. All sorts of sentiment concerning animals play a role here, thinks Knegtering: ‘Mammals hide much more and their colours are significantly more boring than birds’.’ Big, non-destructive birds are most likely to be found sympathetic. A good example of this is the spoonbill. Insects, on the other hand, are often overlooked by nature conservation laws. ‘Other invertebrates, like worms and spiders, are not covered at all,’ according to Knegtering. ‘You’d be well advised not to be small, ugly and an invertebrate.’

Image improvement

'Rarity or the threat of extinction alone appear to be insufficient to justify conservation measures,’ concludes Knegtering. ‘There are about four thousand species on the Dutch red lists, but only a limited number of them are protected by legislation. Protection is not always an option because it also has consequences for society.’
‘As far as legal protection is concerned, it’s certainly convenient if an animal has attractive characteristics,’ Knegtering sums up. Because biodiversity mainly comprises species who don’t do so well on that front, the biologist suggests taking a look at whether the image of such species can be improved via communication, for example by emphasizing how useful a certain animal is.

Curriculum vitae

Edo Knegtering (Hengelo Ov., 1963) studied biology at the University of Groningen. He will be awarded a PhD on 27 November 2009; his supervisor is Prof. A.J.M. Schoot Uiterkamp. His thesis is entitled The featheries and the furries: species characteristics and tendencies in public species conservation. Knegtering now works for the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food  Quality.

Further information

 Edo Knegtering, tel. (070) 378 5695 (work), e-mail e.knegtering

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.27 p.m.
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