Now Jennifer McGowan at Macquarie University in Sydney and her colleagues suggest that conservationists can have it both ways, after finding that funding for flagship species also helps other threatened species in the surrounding areas.
McGowan was contacted by a US charity called WildArk, which wanted its fundraising to be backed by robust science on the ecological impact of helping certain species.
To find the best approach, McGowan’s team first drew up a list of 534 flagship species in exceptionally wildlife-rich hotspots around the world, from golden-snub nosed monkeys to giant armadillos. The biodiversity hotspots were each split into grids of 100 by 100 kilometre squares. The researchers then compared two conservation approaches across eight scenarios which assumed different levels of human activity and protected areas.
The first focused on protecting flagship species, while the second aimed to protect the maximum number of species in an area, regardless of their fundraising potential.
The researchers found that targeting grid squares with flagship species also protected 79 to 89 per cent of the non-flagship species in that area. The figure rose to 97 per cent in some scenarios. In other words, most of the potentially less cute species benefit too.
The findings could help conservationists when choosing species to promote, says McGowan. “Flagship species are very effective at getting the public to care. But we can also select flagship species in a more rigorous way, using both the head and the heart,” she says.
Meeting international biodiversity targets, due to be discussed in China this October, could cost up to $100 billion a year, so knowing how best to use flagship animals will become increasingly important.
Morgan Trimble, the author of a paper that found scientists also have a bias towards charismatic megafauna, says the results don’t surprise her, given there is no shortage of amazing species spread across the world.
“While I think it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the bigger picture – that conserving species is about conserving all the component parts of ecosystems, even the not-so-cute species – I think highlighting flagship species in fundraising and education is a practical idea and appeals to human nature,” she says.
Trimble also asks what the alternative to using flagship species would be: randomly picking species? McGowan’s study found a random approach to choosing where to spend conservation funds only protected 39 to 55 per cent of the non-flagship species.
Mike Hoffmann at the Zoological Society of London says McGowan’s results are promising and help our understanding of whether fundraising with flagship species leads to money being spent in the most important places.
How well things pan out in the real world depends on whether conservation groups adopt such a broad list of flagship species as McGowan’s team, he says. “Many campaigns only focus on a few mega-charismatic species.”
Craig Hilton-Taylor at the IUCN Red List, which tracks threatened species, says the analysis is useful and offers another tool for conservationists to decide which species to prioritise. The research is heavily based on animals, he says, and may not capture what happens with invertebrates and plants. “That has to be tested,” he says.
Journal reference: Nature Communications, DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-14554-z