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Core Concept Published: June 21, 2021

Flagship Species: Do They Help or Hurt Conservation?

Abstract

Many of the plants and animals we love, and even more we do not know about, are in serious danger. Species extinctions are occurring at alarming rates. But how do we prevent extinction from happening? One strategy is to first make people aware of what is going on. If people know which plants and animals are in danger, they will be more likely to support measures that protect those species. We can do this by drawing attention to problems facing species that people are familiar with, like African lions, Siberian tigers, and humpback whales. Sadly, this strategy ignores many weird and wonderful creatures most people may know nothing about! More importantly, it prevents us from protecting other important species and the environments in which they live. It is time to re-think our approach so that we can protect as many species and habitats as possible!

What is Biodiversity and Why is It Important?

Biodiversity is the variety of life in a particular habitat or collection of habitats. A habitat’s biodiversity includes everything from tiny microscopic bacteria to huge mammals like blue whales. Humans and Earth’s biodiversity are closely linked. For example, the corn we eat is pollinated by bees, and many plants keep pollutants from washing into our lakes and rivers. These are just two examples of the many services that nature provides humans. Yet, human activities like large-scale construction projects and the climate change caused by human activities are causing rapid declines in biodiversity [1].

Who Protects Biodiversity?

Wildlife conservation is the act of protecting plants, animals, and the habitats in which they live. Some organizations make this their mission! We call these environmental non-governmental organizations (eNGOs). As the name suggests, these organizations are not related to the government. Many eNGOs create what are called conservation campaigns to gather money and support from the public. Such campaigns help eNGOs carry out important conservation work that protects species and the habitats they live in. But protecting all the biodiversity found on Earth is really hard! Instead, many eNGOs focus on conserving one species as a shortcut to conserving all species [2]. This one species is called a flagship species.

What Makes a Good Flagship Species?

Flagship species are usually animals that people are familiar with. These species also have one or more appealing features. Together, these two things make some species popular symbols for conservation [3]. A common example of a flagship species is the fluffy and lovable giant panda (Figure 1). In fact, this species is used as the logo for the World Wildlife Fund. Flagship species make it easier for eNGOs to raise money because the way the animal looks makes people concerned for it and its habitat [4]. The hope is that these flagship species can be used in conservation campaigns to increase actions that lead to conservation.

Figure 1 - Examples of common flagship species.
  • Figure 1 - Examples of common flagship species.
  • (A) Giant panda (public domain CC0); (B) Benal tiger (public domain CC0); (C) Bald eagle, Photo by Lewis Hulbert/CC BY-SA 4.0; (D) African bush elephant, Photo by Muhammad Mahdi Karim/GFDL 1.2; (E) Mountain gorilla, Photo by Bartsouthfl/CC BY-NC 4.0.

Becoming a flagship species is often based on an animal’s appearance. Those that are big, cute, or furry are frequently chosen [4]. These types of animals usually cause an emotional reaction in people [5]. Think about how you feel when you see a beautiful picture of a big tiger or a soaring eagle. Some studies have found that animals with large bodies, forward-facing eyes, and an overall impressive appearance make good flagship species [5, 6]. Some eNGOs also choose large animals that have big home ranges—areas in which animals spend most of their time—so that protection of the flagship species may also protect other species living in the same habitat [2].

Problems With the Flagship Species Approach

In reality, there are very few species that fit the typical definition of a flagship species. Choosing animals like pandas and tigers as flagship species limits the number of species that can be protected [3, 6]. It also limits the problems an eNGO can address [3, 6]. Not to mention that most of the money eNGOs collect for a conservation campaign focusing on one flagship species will only be spent protecting that one species [6]. This means other species will remain unprotected and at risk of extinction [8]. More careful selection of flagship species is therefore necessary [2]. Unprotected species are usually smaller, less familiar species, such as certain plants or insects. Many of these creatures were once numerous in some habitats, but are becoming increasingly threatened [7].

Re-thinking Flagship Species

Ensuring that our conservation efforts benefit large number of species is challenging. While using flagship species is one approach to protecting multiple species, we need to re-think how these species are chosen. For example, step one is to identify a particular conservation problem. This could be something like forest habitat destruction or pollution in rivers. After identifying the problem, eNGOs should choose a flagship species based on who the organization is trying to appeal to [6, 9]. However, not all flagship species will remain popular forever. Some will increase in popularity and some will decline. This means that some people will become tired of reading about a once-popular species. In turn, this could lead to less support for their protection [8].

What about shifting our attention, so the focus is on less familiar species? Some conservationists think eNGOs should do just that [2, 3]. After all, there are some truly weird and wonderful species out there! This could be a good approach, especially if some of these lesser-known species also share habitat needs with lots of other species, or if they are highly threatened [5]. Yet, people still naturally like large, cute, and furry animals! So, choosing an animal that is too bizarre may not work well. Instead, finding a species that is critically endangered and unfamiliar, but still visually appealing, is ideal [6]. These are called Cinderella species, after the tale of Cinderella, who went from being an unknown girl to a princess. You can see some examples of critically endangered Cinderella species in Figure 2.

Figure 2 - Examples of Cinderella species.
  • Figure 2 - Examples of Cinderella species.
  • (A) Talaud bear cuscus, Photo by Carlosbocos/CC BY-NC 4.0; (B) Pennant’s red colobus, Photo by Nathanelstanek/CC BY-NC 4.0; (C) Tamaraw or Mindoro dwarf buffalo, Photo by Gregg Yan/CC BY-SA 3.0; (D) African wild ass, Photo by Mourad-Harazallah/CC BY-NC 4.0; (E) Pygmy raccoon, Photo by Scott Camazine/CC BY-SA 3.0. Species examples from Smith et al. [6].

But what if an eNGO chooses a species that some people like and others do not? This is very possible! To avoid this, some scientists think eNGOs should develop flagship fleets, or groups consisting of multiple flagship species spread across different types of animals, such as mammals and birds, for example [9]. Flagship fleets increase the chance that people will find at least one species that appeals to them, so these fleets could increase awareness of more species that need attention and, in turn, conserve more biodiversity [9]. Environmental NGOs could also set a donation limit for one particular species [3]. For instance, an eNGO might say, “We only want $100,000 to protect lions, and any additional money we receive will go to protect other plants, animals, and habitats.” This supports the idea that the ideal flagship species helps protect other forms of biodiversity [4].

What about moving away from single species and building conservation campaigns that protect entire ecosystems instead [3]? For instance, coral reefs and tropical rainforests are two of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth! Or conservation campaigns could focus on specific areas as opposed to species, such as national parks [3]. There are also some examples of single species that could act as flagships for entire ecosystems, such as the golden lion tamarin representing the Atlantic rain forest, or for entire groups of animals, like the monarch butterfly representing insects [7, 10]. These approaches shift the focus to benefit a wider range of biodiversity through the conservation of more species and habitats.

Conclusion

Flagship species like tigers and pandas are frequently used by eNGOs to increase awareness and raise money for conservation initiatives [6]. And yet, a single-species approach that favors mammals and birds has been criticized. Conserving as much biodiversity as possible should be the main goal of any conservation campaign. So, eNGOs could choose different flagship species, direct extra money from flagship species funds to other projects, add more species to create a flagship fleet, or campaign for ecosystems or whole animal and plant groups [2, 3, 6, 9]. Any of these solutions, including combinations of them, may prove beneficial. Earth has so much wonderful biodiversity that is worthy of our protection!

Glossary

Biodiversity: The variation of life within a given habitat or ecosystem.

Environmental non-governmental Organization (eNGO): Organizations that focus on protecting specific animals, plants, and habitats, but that operate without influence from governments.

Conservation Campaign: Organized activities carried out to achieve a specific purpose related to protecting specific animals, plants, and the habitats in which they live.

Flagship Species: Often large, charismatic mammals or birds chosen by eNGOs to act as a symbol to raise public awareness and money for conservation efforts.

Cinderella Species: A species that is critically endangered and unfamiliar, but still visually appealing, and chosen by an eNGO to raise public awareness and money for conservation efforts.

Flagship Fleet: Multiple species acting as flagship species in a single conservation campaign.

Ecosystem: A unit of space consisting of organisms, their environment, and the interactions between them.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.


References

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