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Environment & Wildlife, General, World Trends

Flagship Species: Utilising the Lion’s Share of Funding

August 10th 2023

Tagged: Conservation, Endangered Species, Wildlife

From donation adverts to the logos of major conservation organisations (such as the WWF and NRDC), the same few species, flagship species, are used time and time again. 

While these species are the most recognisable and attract the most funding, only protecting them would undermine the very purpose of conservation. So, how do we ensure all endangered species receive the protection they need?

Tigers cleaning in South AfricaBig Cat Volunteer | South Africa Wildlife | Working AbroadThe charismatic megafauna model 

Tigers, lions, elephants, and pandas are just some examples of the charismatic megafauna. These species often hold symbolic value or have widespread public appeal. For this reason, they have long been used as ambassadors to attract donations which can then be used to achieve conservation goals. 

This model was established in the 1980s as a method to raise money for conservation efforts as part of a growing effort to save endangered species. However, the use of these species to entice funding has existed for much longer. One such earlier example is the World Wildlife Fund’s giant panda logo, which was inspired by Chi Chi the panda moving from Beijing Zoo to London Zoo in 1958. 

What is the issue?

Given that these species possess a crucial quality – their innate ability to attract donation – why would utilising this cause problems?

The fundamental issue with the model is its tendency to venerate these charismatic species while overlooking all the others. This can lead to a species’ protection from extinction depending on its public image rather than its role in the ecosystem. Moreover, this bias towards large mammals skews conservation efforts away from non-charismatic species, potentially meaning only well-known species get listed as endangered. 

It has also been shown that many charismatic megafaunal species are not keystone species and thus are not critical to the ecosystem’s stability, and yet, they are the only species that attract sufficient funding.

elephant front onVolunteer in Thailand | WorkingAbroadAn inherent solution?

Although focusing protection on these species has caused criticism and questions of over-prioritisation, recent research shows that, for the most part, these species are umbrella species. 

One paper, which used six animal characteristics (such as body mass, diet diversity, and reproductive traits) to quantify a species’ ecological distinctiveness, found that endangered animals are, on average, both more ecologically distinct and charismatic. This means that the protection of these species is fundamental to the overall stability and health of an ecosystem and as such they are arguably not over-protected.  

An alternative model

However, models for conservation funding have come a long way since the 1980s and currently, primarily, two modern alternatives exist. 

One is simply to advertise animals, which need funding, in a way that constructs charisma via marketing. This way species, which are traditionally seen as non-charismatic surrounded by negative social and cultural schemas, get sufficient funding as well as potentially changing the public opinion of them. 

Another method is to advertise using flagship species in a way that does not constrain the donation to just the animal and rather gets focused on the ecosystem. For example, this could be done with a promotional campaign that utilises a charismatic megafaunal species, but within the context of the priority habitat. 

Arguably, the use of charismatic megafauna to attract funding is predominately done in a way that benefits the whole ecosystem, but work still needs to be done to stop overlooked/unappealing species from becoming extinct.

WorkingAbroad offers both projects with a focus on umbrella species (e.g., sea turtle conservation in Costa Rica) and on priority habitats themselves (e.g., reforestation in Iceland). 

Written by WorkingAbroad Blogger Edward Forman

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