When is a cartoon more than just a cartoon? Maybe, as researchers at the University of Tokyo have discovered, when that show encourages people to get out their wallets and donate to conservation programmes.
A study across Japan has found that a popular 30-minute anime series, Kemono Friends—about a girl alone in a world filled with animals exploring their habitats to discover her ‘true identity’—led to millions more Google searches for the animal species featured in the show.
Most importantly, this increased interest led to large donations increases for conservation programmes in zoos—particularly those protecting the Sakhalin Fox, the Northern White-Faced Owl and other animals that appear in the show.
Testing conservation impact
The study was conducted by Yaya Fukano, an assistant professor from the University of Tokyo’s Institute for Sustainable Agro-Ecosystem Services.
The academic had become interested in how humans interact with nature, particularly in zoos. In partnership with a zookeeper, Fukano wanted to go beyond typical visitor surveys to see what impact zoos had on conservation. The team decided to do big data analysis through Google Trends and Wikipedia.
What they found was that there was a dramatic increase in online searches for many animals in the first few months of 2017—the exact time when Kemono Friends had been released.
The anime was a huge hit, especially with adults in Japan. The story of the girl roaming around the safari park with her anthropomorphic animal friends picked up an outstanding science fiction award, was made available via streaming, and received several merchandising and video game tie-ins.
Fukano found that in the 18 months after Kemono Friends was first broadcast, there was a 4.66-million increase in Google searches and one million Wikipedia page views for the animal species in the show, compared to the previous 18 months.
Similarly, they found that animals at three zoos in Tokyo benefitted from a higher than average donation rate after Kemono Friends went on the air, with the animals that were the main characters attracting the largest donation increases.
“At first, we thought anime is just entertainment, so we could not take the data seriously,” Fukano said in a statement. “But Google Trends is a record of the public interest, and the data clearly shows Kemono Friends has a positive effect on public interest in wildlife, regardless of the species’ conservation status.”
What’s heartwarming is that the Kemono Friends creators made sure this boost in public interest had a positive effect. They set out on high-profile collaborations with zoos, via donations and illustrations of individual zoo animals—helping avoid a boom in wildlife poaching, known as the ‘Finding Nemo’ effect.
The quirky, thoroughly Japanese series also found that people can be driven to take action in the world by their love for fictional characters. This sets it apart from more traditional public education attempts, such as the BBC’s environmental show Blue Planet 2, which led to remarkable behaviour changes after showing animals feeding plastic to their offspring.
“There are so many environmental conservation issues in the world today: microplastics, biodiversity, climate change,” Fukano added. “These causes often compete for attention from audiences who are already interested in such issues.
“Collaborations between entertainers and zookeepers or conservationists could find a way to attract the very large potential audience that is not already interested in environmental topics.”