G+ YouTube Pinterest Instagram
The Gap Year Blog

Flagship Species: Are They Necessary?

18 Nov 2016 10:50 AM

Everyone knows about the conservation story of the Panda, Orangutan and Elephant, yet despite the planet's current mass extinction occurring, little is discussed in the mainstream media about the less cuddly species going extinct. We investigate whether flagship species actually aid in the conservation of all threatened species.

So what is a flagship species?

The WWF's definition of a flagship species is ‘a species selected to act as an ambassador, icon or symbol for a defined habitat, issue, campaign or environmental cause’. Flagship species have been successful in conservation of charismatic species like the Polar Bear, Manatee, Elephant, Sea Turtle and the Panda.

The Panda, WWF’s logo, is a world recognised ambassador for conservation. The cute and cuddly bear breaks hearts around the globe and the struggles to breed pandas to release into the wild is wildly known. So why do we continue to put so much money into panda conservation than other species with fewer breeding complications?

The reasoning behind this is that the Panda is a symbol of conservation and if we can’t save the Panda, than will people lose hope in all conservation efforts? David Attenborough has seen the conservation movement grow and develop over his 60 year career, therefore he has experienced the impact flagship species, like the Panda, have had towards this movement.

“It made sense to concentrate on the disappearance of species that we care about, the charismatic species, in order to make people aware of what mankind is doing.

It’s very easy to say, ‘The giant panda’s disappearing.’ What you should be saying is that the ecosystem of which the giant panda is only a part of is disappearing.

Because the world wouldn’t change hugely if we lost the panda. But if we see the disappearance of the bamboo forests on which the panda depends, that will disrupt the whole natural pattern of things.”

Frontier | Baby pandas at the China Breeding Programme in China

Ecosystems are in more need of protection than single species due to the number of species and natural resources (e.g. nutrients in the soil, storage of carbon in trees) that they provide, leading to the debate of single-species versus landscape conservation. So what is the future of ecosystems without flagship species inhabiting them?

A review published in Biological Conservation, 1998, investigated the effectiveness of single-species management in their current literature. Single-species management was often found to be controlled by other factors than saving species, like economics, politicians and social concerns. Ecosystems and ecosystem health were often maintained after a flagship species extinction, indicating the need for a movement towards conservation of ecosystem health rather than single-species. The applicability of this change, however, has current limitations. Firstly, Ecosystem health doesn’t have a universal definition or measurement (would it be the nutrient concentration in the soil, the concentration in the plant matter? Etc.). Secondly, there are logistical limitations of measuring a single species health and conservation status, let alone an ecosystem as a whole. Thirdly, Ecosystems are many different sizes and have many different attributes (e.g. a desert vs. a wetland) making comparisons difficult. 

The key findings of the review by Daniel Simberloff indicate we need a more thorough understanding of whole ecosystems and how they interact with species, but this would take a very long time, probably too long for conservation. The author suggests concentrating on the keystone species approach, combining the best features of single-species and ecosystem management. 

What is a keystone species?

WWF defines a keystone species as ‘a species that plays an essential role in the structure, functioning or productivity of a habitat or ecosystem at a defined level (habitat, soil, seed dispersal , etc.)'

The Orangutan is an example of a flagship species that is also a keystone species. Orangutans are an important part of the ecosystem as they disperse seeds far and wide after eating many forest fruits. Our ginger cousins also provide light to the forest floors by breaking branches when they create their nests, allowing young plants to thrive and grow.

Frontier | Orangutan in the trees in Sumatra

The protection of Indonesian forest is essential as 80% of its forest has been cut down for industry even after it has been famed to be the most species rich country on Earth. The habitats in which Orangutans live are of highest importance to preserve, due to their popularity around the globe. There is only a 22% overlap of orangutan distribution protected areas and palm plantations, but if all the land outside the protected areas are developed we will lose a further 49% of Orangutans due to increased habitat fragmentation, showing an obvious need to protect as many ecosystems as we can, rather than just those with well known species.

So what incentive can be used to protect ecosystems without keystone or flagship species?

The Ecosystem Services Framework is a concept highlighting “the long-term role that healthy ecosystems play in the sustainable provision of human wellbeing, economic development and poverty alleviation across the globe”. Ecosystem services provided by many different types of habitats include water purification, decomposition of waste materials, flood regulation, nutrient cycling, medicinal resources, pest and disease control, climate regulation and the sequestration of carbon plus many more.

The scale of economic and public services gain, and who it goes to, is very dependent on the scale and type of services an ecosystem provides, as well as the socio-economic and cultural context of the host country, but it has been proven to be successful in some countries.

Most Ecosystem Service Frameworks have been in small areas but they provide vital information towards planning on a larger scale. Take for example New York where a 1997 water pollution crisis led to a bold experiment. The cost of a new water purification system was predicted to be US$8 billion, therefore, plans were set to restore the natural watershed through reforesting. In the four years that followed, the city only had to invest US$2 billion in land management changes like buying land around reservoirs and wetlands to buffer pollution and paying landowners to restore streams and forests and providing them with technical aid. The success of the project has set an example to cities worldwide as not only it is it cost-effective, but it aids the urban and rural communities to preserve habitats that provide valuable services.

Frontier | Mangroves in Costa Rica provide valuable water purification and storm protection services

A large scale approach has been implemented by Costa Rica through the PSA (Pago por Servicios Ambientales/Environmental Services Payment) programme. The scheme puts a price on carbon storage, hydrological services, biodiversity protection and landscape protection. The laws have been put in place to ensure renewable hydroelectric power, reduced climate change, cleaner water and sustainable industry through forest ecotourism. The scheme has been accredited for reducing deforestation rates in Costa Rica from one of the world’s highest in 2000 (117.2%) to one of the lowest (0.13%) by 2005. The PSA scheme cost Costa Rica US$2 Billion dollars to set up and implement but a lifetime of sustainable energy, clean water, tourism and more makes it seem a small price to pay, setting an example to countries worldwide.

It is clear that different motivations for conserving the natural world can be accessed in order to implement change and the potential of the Ecosystem Service Framework for the movement could be immense. The complexity of changing the whole system of conservation towards the Ecosystem Service Framework would not be easy, but it may be the overhaul needed in conservation in order to continue the great success of flagship and keystone species.

Get involved in the conservation of pandas with our China Panda Breeding Centre Project

Aid in orangutan conservation with our Indonesia Orangutan Conservation Project

See our Wildlife Conservation Projects in Costa Rica

By Meike Simms - Online Media Intern

Frontier runs terrestrial & marine conservation, community, teaching and adventure projects in over 50 countries - join us and explore the world!