Flagship Species Help Conserve All Biodiversity

Andy Beattie, Jennifer McGowan | February 25, 2020 | Leave a Comment

One of the most successful ways of raising funds for conservation is to focus public and corporate interest on saving large, charismatic animals such as tigers, pandas and whales.  This species-specific approach has been widely criticized by conservation scientists for two reasons: first it attracts a disproportionate amount of funding, leaving little for important species of little appeal to the public. Earthworms and dung beetles come to mind. Second, it assumes that selecting conservation areas based solely on the presence of the chosen charismatic species also conserves the rest of biodiversity in that area, but research has demonstrated that this is less efficient than other approaches. Thus, there is the conundrum that the best way of raising conservation funds excludes the most efficient ways of spending it. 

Recently, Dr. Jennifer McGowan and her colleagues pursued the  question: to what degree does requiring the presence of one or more  flagship species influence our ability to maximize a conservation objective at the global scale? The answer was found by developing a hybrid species-based/ place-based optimization strategy that selects conservation areas that maximize species representation while adhering to a simple rule – priority sites must also contain one or more flagship species:  https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-14554-z

The team identified 534 candidate flagship species of mammals, birds and reptiles, 338 of which were threatened according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List. This list was combined with 10,200 areas spanning the global priority terrestrial and freshwater ecoregions, 3097 of which overlapped with existing protected areas, 3961 overlapped with regions of low human impact and 1068 overlapped with both. Through a series of planning scenarios, both sets of data were jointly optimized to identify priority places for biodiversity that play host to suitable flagships species.

To measure the robustness of this approach they compared their results to scenarios that only maximized biodiversity representation and showed that the flagship-based approach achieved 79%−89% of the biodiversity objective.  

The most constrained scenario identified 47 locations around the world and 183 flagship species. The number of flagship species in an individual location ranged from 1 to 20, the highest of which identified areas such as the Naga-Manupuri-Chin hills moist forest ecoregion of India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Elsewhere, in China, for example, areas that included the Giant Panda also harbored other flagships such as the Golden Snub-Nosed Monkey, the Snow Leopard and the Chinese Softshell Turtle which, together, provide the flexibility for conservation organizations to create joint fund-raising and conservation options.

Overall, the research demonstrated the utility of selecting flagship species based on objective conservation/biodiversity goals as well as target audience and marketing strategies. The flagship species that emerge will be ‘charismatic’ to some segment of the public or corporate sector but will have been chosen according to systematic scientific procedure. Retaining the fundraising advantages offered by flagship species is the best way to continue to leverage funding from general audiences into conservation. This research illustrates that prudently selected flagship species (selected by various criteria ranging from general appeal, degree of endangerment or cultural importance), when combined with explicit biodiversity objectives, can resolve the flagship species conundrum by both raising funds for conservation and protecting the major part of biodiversity that does not interest donors.

1Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, NSW 2109, Australia

2 Center for Conservation and Biodiversity Science, University of Queensland, St. Lucia, QLD 4072, Australia

3 The Nature Conservancy, Arlington, VA, USA

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