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Flagship Species Defined and Their Role in Conservation

Updated on June 10, 2012
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What is a flagship species?

A flagship species is a species that serves as a conservation ambassador. These are the poster children of environmental conservation. They are most often large, conspicuous, widely recognized species. Think African elephant. Many of them also have a warm fuzzy quality as well. Think panda bear.

These animals, the bears and tigers and whales and the like, are what biologists refer to as charismatic megafauna. They are the big animals that we are drawn to. They are conspicuous, familiar, and quite often cute or majestic. And we would rather save them than a tree or a rock or a patch of grass. Conservationists know that and they use it. Because it works.

Role in Conservation

Flagship species are often chosen by conservation groups to raise public awareness for a particular cause. The logo of the World Wildlife Fund is a Giant Panda. Think about it. Are you more likely to donate to a fund protecting the Asian jungle in general, or to one that is saving the tigers? Would you mind sending a donation today to conserve a vast span of arctic tundra? No? What about to save a polar bear? For the right price we will even send you your own little plush critter. Sound familiar? I guarantee a commercial full of romping bears will grab your attention and hold it a lot better than one of ice and flat ground. Or some obscure bacterium.

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Why should we fall for their game?

Well, for one thing, flagship species do need saving. They might be endangered or declining enough to cause concern. They also are usually umbrella species. Protecting them also protects a large number of other species that exist under their umbrella. If you want to save an elephant, you have to protect it from immediate dangers like poaching. You also have to ensure that it has adequate food and habitat. This requires preserving a fairly large expanse of savanna, and all of the things it contains. By saving the tiger, you are saving its prey species and the jungle itself.

In some cases, flagship species have the added bonus of being a keystone species. Keystone species have a large impact on the ecosystem that they are a part of. So large that it is disproportionate to their population size. Even a small change in their numbers can lead to a drastic change in the ecosystem. The African elephant is a perfect example. Their feeding habits alter the structure of the environment so much that without them it would be drastically different.

Saving the planet one fuzzy critter at a time

Saving one species at a time is a noble goal. Losing any species to extinction is a devastating event for the planet and for the human race. Also noble is saving ecosystems. Many conservationist take an ecosystem approach to conservation, valuing the whole system over one or a few spcecies.The components of an ecosystem, living and nonliving, function together to provide valuable functions essential to life on this planet. They clean our water, provide our oxygen, supply us with food, and more. So if getting you to save a polar bear is what it takes to make steps towards halting global climate change, or saving sea turtles will save the beaches and oceans, then that is what will go on the posters and in the commercials and on the websites. And that is fine.

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    • diogenes profile image

      diogenes 5 years ago from UK and Mexico

      Hi Dana: This whole situation enrages me. The plethora of charities set up to enrich the directors; the beautiful creatures sacrificed for Chinese idiots who want their powdered ivory to make patent medicines for their flagging libidos. And the irresponsible Africans who will continue to have huge families when there is no money to feed the family cat.

      No relief in sight, except in insignificant pockets, nor will there be until this viral disease of the Planet, man, is finally extinct himself.

      Bob

    • profile image

      alloporus 5 years ago

      Good, clear explanation. Thanks Dana.

    • DanaTeresa profile image
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      Dana Strang 5 years ago from Ohio

      Bob - Yes. there are unfortunately meny chraties out ther that don't do a bit of good. All they do is take money and misdirect it. The ones too fee the hungry are some of the worst. There is a great website called charity navigator that you can go on and it will tell you how much money a chartiy spends on administration vs actual good works and other things. I always recommend researching a charity thoroughly before giving them a penny!

    • DanaTeresa profile image
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      Dana Strang 5 years ago from Ohio

      alloporus - thank you!

    • profile image

      KDuBarry03 5 years ago

      It appears as though, because of human advancement, we are indirectly (and directly) forcing these animals to live an anathema to be wiped off the face of the earth. Thank you for sharing this; I am with Bob in agreement: it is a shame and it enrages me that we advance so much and we do not [fully] take into consideration the other animals that are being harmed by our advancements.

    • DanaTeresa profile image
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      Dana Strang 5 years ago from Ohio

      KDuBarry03 - yes. It is a shame that man has a nasty habit of destroying things in the name of progress. As a biology student it is hard for me to comprehend how anyone could think that is ok. Even though saving a bear seems like a silly way to save the planet,but if it gets awareness out there to the general public and accomplishes something, then I am all for it. The trick is to make the campaign effective at raising the money and awareness and to use it to actually do some good.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

      This is such an educational hub on an important topic. I agree that our advances in civilization have harmed some of these flagship species. Such a shame. Thanks for taking a stand in this matter. Voted up.

    • DanaTeresa profile image
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      Dana Strang 5 years ago from Ohio

      Teaches - Thanks for reading. Yes, these flagship species need some serious saving. And I hope they will help to save many other species and ecosystems as well.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      You are so nice; thank you for linking my article. I'll do the same for you my young friend. As for the hub, it is wonderful and great and about another ten adjectives. You know how I feel about the environment....and you....so this is a win-win hub! :)

    • theclevercat profile image

      Rachel Vega 5 years ago from Massachusetts

      This is a thoughtful way of describing this troublesome issue. But I disagree with Bob completely... I think there is still hope for educating people with or without the financial means to "help". If it takes a tiger, then so be it.

    • DanaTeresa profile image
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      Dana Strang 5 years ago from Ohio

      Cat - Thanks for chiming in. As a student of biology I know how important it is to leave this planet as intact as possible, from tiny creatures we can't see, to piles of dirt, to fuzzy pandas. Most people on this planet do not have the education or understanding needed to accept that as fact. Nor do they care to get it. Flagship Species are a way to get more people involved and to get attention closer to where it needs to be. So yes. As you said "If it takes a tiger, then so be it." But be careful who you give your money to or which organizations you join. There are a lot of bad ones mixed in with the good.

    • DanaTeresa profile image
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      Dana Strang 5 years ago from Ohio

      Bill - How could I not link one of yours. You're everywhere! :) It's a great hub and does a nice job of pointing out why we should care about ecosystems. Science geeks like me totally get it, but the average Joe needs some encouragement. Thank goodness for the big fuzzy animals that can draw some of those everyday folks closer to the cause.

      And thanks for the ego boost! Seems like just when I feel like I am spinning my wheels and getting nowhere, you are there to give me a little nudge!

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image

      Stephanie Henkel 5 years ago from USA

      There are many important endangered species that just would not attract public attention because they aren't fuzzy and cute. Using flagship species does at least focus attention on real environmental concerns. It is frustrating that the public will ignore major threats to the environment until a whole ecosystem is endangered.

      Nice hub! The comments it generated about the need to be wary of which charities we support is also useful.

    • DanaTeresa profile image
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      Dana Strang 5 years ago from Ohio

      Stephanie - Thank you for taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment. It is a shame that people wont line up to save the tiny things or the ugly things. That is just human nature. And it is hard for many people to wrap their heads around the concept of caring for a whole ecosystem. So I will say again, thank goodness for the big and fuzzy critters. :)

      Perhaps I will write a hub on the charity issue. Someone should. I hate to see money thrown away or mis-used in the name of a good cause.

      See you around the hubs!

    • profile image

      IntegrityYes 4 years ago

      Rock on,Dana!

    • DanaTeresa profile image
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      Dana Strang 4 years ago from Ohio

      IntegrityYes - Thanks. Every now and then I feel like I should use all those years of education. :)

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 4 years ago from South Africa

      A very interesting and informative hub, and well-written. Thank you, Dana!

    • DanaTeresa profile image
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      Dana Strang 4 years ago from Ohio

      Martie - I am so happy you read this. I am a total nerd and had fun writing it. I miss my days of being a biology student.... See you around dear friend :)

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