Recently I read a Scientific American article titled “Why we don’t need pandas“. I suggest checking it out. No, it wasn’t a panda hating article. Who doesn’t like pandas? They’re adorable! But the author did mention some interesting things to consider.
I’ve never worked with pandas so if I’m inaccurate and someone else would know better, please correct me! But, from what I’ve seen most panda conservation is in the form of breeding and captivity programs. Yet, few pandas are ever returned to the wild (the first giant panda released into the wild was Xiang Xiang, only in 2006, even though the captive breeding program has been ongoing for more than 40 years). In fact, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of conservation efforts to protect wild pandas. With China’s growing economy, it may actually destroy more panda habitat than anything else.
This whole thing got me thinking about flagship species. What is this? A flagship species is a species that is used to raise awareness of a cause in an effort to gain more support for conservation programs. Most flagship species are of the cute and furry variety, the kind that people just want to cuddle (however unwise that may be), that make them popular, like tigers. The thing with flagship species is it doesn’t automatically mean they have any specific ecological significance or may even be the most threatened in that area. These species are chosen as icons because they may be considered “charismatic” and as I said before, cute, by society, and namely western society. A species could be in dire need of conservation efforts but, if it isn’t what many would considered an aesthetically appealing species, still receive little attention or funding. Yes, I’m afraid, generally speaking, we really are that shallow.
But, conservation efforts and money collected by the use of these appealing flagship species by marketing efforts can actually help many more species, even the not so “cuddly” variety. The reason for this is that if efforts and research are done on the territory of the species and not solely on the species itself, more are protected even if that wasn’t the conscious intention.
Let’s face it, you can throw all the money you want at a species but, unless you protect their habitat, their wild existence will continue to dwindle. The beautiful thing about protecting the habitat of the animal is that they are not the only ones living there. You must protect their prey species as well, and everyone else in the territory then receives some protection from outside forces, all because people want to help that one species.
When wildlife corridors are created to help a species move from one fragmented piece of habitat to another, this helps many species. Some of these corridors have been developed in South America for the use of jaguars. After all, these are large predators that need a lot of territory to have enough food yet still have access to plenty of mates. But other animals can use these corridors as well, and even if a species is small enough not to travel these longer distances, it still creates safer habitat for animals to live in.
On the other hand, sometimes flagship species are used as symbols for an organization, and because people like that animal, they are more willing to give research money to that group even if the money itself isn’t necessarily assigned to the efforts for that particular species. The World Wildlife Federation (WWF) uses the panda as their icon, for example. Zoos and similar organizations often use animals such as polar bears or elephants. National Parks may use a lion or a bison.
The use of flagship species is a good thing, of course, if it raises awareness and funds for environmental and conservation efforts. It’s sad that such efforts are needed though, and it’s a constant battle as human populations grow, people and nations strive toward the same goal of culture, and resources dwindle. The fact that people need to be convinced that conservation is needed, and perhaps even motivated by a fuzzy face filled with cute, shows that we need much more education on how our world works.