Flying the flag: flagship species as a conservation tool

By Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

Reports on the threat of extinction to animals proliferate academic and popular media. Whilst this is by no means a new phenomenon, Gupta et al.’s (2014) recent article in Area provides some food for thought. Their paper draws on the use of ‘flagship species’ to promote environmental protection and conservation. This term, for me, resides at an unusual intersection between scientific biogeography and culturally-influenced animal geography.

Flagship species are chosen for their ‘charisma’, a certain charm or appeal that makes them attractive to humans. Having the capacity to evoke empathy, such species are used as symbols for environmental protection and awareness, and are sometimes used by conservation organisations for brand identification. Examples include elephants, pandas, and tigers; large mammals, attractive and popular, threatened at continental scales. The ‘Flagship Species Fund’ – a joint initiative between Fauna and Flora International (FFI) and the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) – explicitly focuses on ‘primates, sea turtles, and trees’ and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which uses a panda in its logo, admits that flagship species tend to be large animals favoured in western cultures.

How refreshing it is, then, to read about an unusual and divergent case; a species of fish that could help promote local habitat protection. Fish, it appears, are overlooked by flagship species initiatives and, indeed, by studies in animal geography. Gupta et al. (2014) draw our attention to the example of the golden mahseer, a river fish endemic to northern India. Local villagers are extremely passionate about this culturally-significant fish, which is beautifully colourful and elegant, described as the ‘pride of the area’. Anglers treat it with great respect, praising its intelligence and ability to evade capture. Not since we ‘found’ Nemo has a fish had such a powerful effect on human emotion. However, the golden mahseer is threatened by illegal sand and boulder mining, which is causing habitat destruction. Conservationists, therefore, argue that the golden mahseer has huge potential as a flagship species for Himalayan rivers.

This got me thinking about another taxonomic group that has been overlooked; birds. My own work looks at pigeons – more elegantly known as the rock dove (Columba livia) – and whilst they themselves are far from becoming extinct, two of their close ancestors have not been so lucky; the dodo, now symbolic of extinction, and the passenger pigeon. You may have read about the tragic fate of the passenger pigeon in the news of late. This year marks the centenary of the extinction of what was once the most abundant bird in North America. Due to a lack of laws restricting shooting, over the course of the nineteenth century, between 3 and 5 million passenger pigeons were shot and sold for food. Their population dwindled exponentially and Martha – the last passenger pigeon – died in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. One good thing to come of this was a heightened public interest in conservation, although, like the dodo, it was all too late for the passenger pigeon.

Passenger Pigeon (image credit: Trisha M Shears)

Passenger Pigeon (image credit: Trisha M Shears)

Birds, like fish, appear to induce different emotional responses in humans to the cute and cuddly mammals used as flagship species. This is possibly due to the very different environments that they inhabit; we can’t possibly relate to what it is like to soar amongst the clouds in the sky or to reside in vast underwater worlds. Could this explain the notable absence of avian and aquatic flagship species in conservation schemes? Alanna Mitchell’s article for National Geographic at the end of August stated that 1,300 species of bird are currently at risk of extinction. Surprisingly, amidst this long list of ill-fated birds are parrots, puffins, and penguins; birds that capture public imagination with their charming dispositions. Thus, as a catalyst for action, such ‘charismatic’ birds should surely be considered as potential avian flagship species that could pave the way not only to species protection and extinction prevention, but also to the taxonomic widening of this valuable conservation strategy.

 Gupta, N., Sivakumar, K., Mathur, V.B., Chadwick, M.A. (2014). “The ‘tiger of Indian rivers’: stakeholders’ perspectives on the golden mahseer as a flagship fish species”. Area doi: 10.1111/area.12124.

60-world2 Enget M (2014) The Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, Financial Times.

60-world2 Mitchell A (2014) The 1,300 Bird Species Facing Extinction Signal Threats to Human Health, National Geographic Magazine.