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Monday
May102010

How to choose a flagship species for conservation

Panda cub in the Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan, China. Credit, Sheila Lau.The World Wildlife Foundation set the standard for use of a flagship species to promote conservation when it chose the panda to represent the organization.  How can other groups attain similar success with flagship species?

A study done in Switzerland to assess attitudes toward various potential animal flagship species tells us there are some key factors to consider.

Flagship species used by conservation organizations as symbols or attention-getters are typically charismatic mammals (think elephant) or attractive birds (think bald eagle). 

In most cases, there is some assumption that by protecting habitat necessary for these flagship species, organizations will be protecting multiple additional animal and plant species. Another benefit to using a flagship species is in generating awareness and support for conservation projects.

Jürg Schlegel and Reto Rupf of the Zurich University of Applied Sciences surveyed students from primary, grammar and vocational schools about their attitudes toward a list of 27 animal species, all but one of which are found in Switzerland. 

Students were shown a photograph of an individual of each species, and asked first to identify the species, and second, how likeable or unlikeable they found the species to be.  No other information was provided about the animals.

Overall, the students had the greatest affinity for certain butterfly species, followed by several bird species, and then by large mammals. 

When asked about their reason for the affinity ratings they gave, students most often cited appearance as the key reason.  In addition, affinity ratings increased with species recognition; if a student knew the species being pictured, they were more likely to rate it as likeable. 

Even more strongly, if the student had previous knowledge of the species’ rarity or its beneficial nature, those factors led them to rate their affinity for the species even higher.

The not surprising conclusion from this study is that in selecting a flagship species to represent a particular conservation project, you should either select a species with high recognition among the local community, or conduct a campaign to raise awareness of the species you would like to use as a flagship. 

The former strategy works best if the flagship species is intended primarily as an attention-getter. 

If your conservation project uses a flagship species to represent the habitat needs of a larger community of species, it may require you to do some educational outreach about that species, unless it is already well known and appreciated.

As an example, consider the case of the field cricket, which received the lowest affinity rating among the Swiss students. 

In 2003, a threatened species of field cricket was declared “Insect of the Year” in Germany.  Information about this award included audio files of the cricket’s calls, to present an attractive side of the insect which could not be conveyed by a picture, and which would not necessarily be familiar to people not accustomed to spending time outdoors in natural settings.

In a 2007 study on translocation of the field cricket within Germany, the researchers said that “due to its well-known song, the field cricket is a comparatively popular insect species.” 

--by Karen Bassler

Schlegel, J., & Rupf, R. (2010). Attitudes towards potential animal flagship species in nature conservation: A survey among students of different educational institutions Journal for Nature Conservation DOI: 10.1016/j.jnc.2009.12.002

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