When we think about which species are on the road to extinction, the first ones that come into our mind are usually the most charismatic ones. For example, think about climate change; what’s the first animal that comes into your mind? Most likely it’s the polar bear. Think about palm oil deforestation; which is the animal that comes into your head now? Possibly the orangutan. Think about the issue of plastic pollution and marine debris, and chances are you’re thinking about sea turtles. The media are effectively using these large, eye-catching species to try and draw ever more public attention on the issue of biodiversity loss and raise funds for conservation. Not all species are charismatic –think of earthworms or moles for instance – yet their ecosystem role is still fundamental and needs to be preserved. Therefore, to raise funds for their conservation too, we tend to rely on the appealing traits of the most charismatic animals. In science, species able to generate such funds are known as “flagship species”.
WWF logo. Image Credits: https://bit.ly/1ZYuGzR
Since we tend to have a taste for large mammalian species – perhaps because we’re large mammals ourselves – these animals are usually effective flagship species. For example, consider the panda on the logo of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), or the millions of tourists that visit sub-Saharan Africa every year to see lions, leopards and elephants, bringing hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy and benefitting the conservation of local wildlife.
This means that flagship species are usually large-bodied animals with large territories spanning hundreds of squared kilometres. A noteworthy example is that of Amur tigers, with males roaming and protecting a territory of over 1,300 km2 with little overlap between the territories of neighbouring males1. From a conservation perspective, a species with such large territorial ranges would require the protection of vast habitats and landscapes for a viable population. Such protection would inevitably extend over the territory of many other species which would in turn benefit indirectly from it. It is for this reason that usually flagship species are also “umbrella species”, which is jargon for species that if granted protection will indirectly extend their protection to other species too.
Amur tiger. Image credits: https://bit.ly/2nezMz8
From this perspective, species that take on the label of flagship and/or umbrella species are crucial for our efforts to conserve nature. Nonetheless, it happens to be that most of these species are also amongst the most endangered ones and most difficult to conserve, usually because the larger an animal, the slower its life history – jargon for the defining aspects of the life cycle of an organism – including its reproductive development. In other words, the larger animals reproduce more slowly and thus are more vulnerable to extinction. What will happen to conservation funds if a lot of our most beloved species will go extinct?
- Sunquist, M., 2010. What is a tiger? Ecology and behavior. In Tigers of the world (pp. 19-33). William Andrew Publishing.
Cover image credits: https://bit.ly/2nV9CBT