According to the latest studies and censuses drawn up by different authors, there are approximately 9 million species on planet Earth, including animals (by far, the most abundant group), fungi, plants, protozoa and algae. However, as little as 25% of them are known to mankind, which means that only 2 million of the species that live on this planet have been described.
These figures have always generated a lot of controversy within the scientific community, as attempting to accurately describe how many species live on Earth is an extremely complex task. Even today, many experts and scholars have not been able to agree on figures; partly because thousands of species continue to be discovered every year. The experts do agree, however, on the fact that 9 million is quite a conservative estimate.
Anyhow, having described over 1 million species throughout history (and knowing the biology and ecology of most them) is a great achievement that has allowed scientists, biologists and experts to increase their knowledge in the field. However, it is common for the public to ignore great part of this knowledge about the kingdoms of nature and focus only on a few animal species – specifically, on mammals.
Undoubtedly, some animals are known worldwide and have been present in the lives of many generations. They are usually beautiful, “kind” animals that are portrayed often in children’s stories and movies. They also appear in advertising campaigns, in the logos of organisations and companies, and are even referred to through inaccurate sayings, such as the one that describes the lion as “the king of the jungle“. In essence, these animals have a series of traits that make them appealing to people and that make the stories about them popular; these animals are known as “flagship species”.
Traits of flagship (or charismatic) species
Flagship or charismatic species are animals that are iconic throughout the world, due to their unique appeal. There are many examples of flagship species that enjoy international popularity: panda bears, polar bears, tigers, rhinoceros, sea turtles…
Moreover, every country or region can have its own flagship species, which are unique to that place; that is the case, for example, of the brown bear and the Iberian lynx in Spain. In fact, the Iberian lynx is an important emblem for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and has been featured on the cover of some of its publications.
The primary objective of flagship species
The main objective of flagship species is clear: to take advantage of the appeal and unique features of these animals to capture society’s attention and raise awareness of the importance of protecting and preserving them. However, their secondary objectives are far more ambitious.
Species conservation strategies take time to implement and often face significant legal and legislative constraints, which is why it is necessary for society to engage in political discussions with institutions. Flagship species have become a prime weapon in such discussion and are used by organisations and even administrations as an argument to achieve their conservation objectives.
Marketing, a tool to manage flagship species
It could be said that the concept of flagship species is an invention that, combined with good marketing, has achieved specific objectives, such as obtaining funding for conservation projects. In order to achieve these goals, the audience must be touched by the message that is being conveyed, which is why awareness campaigns sometimes feature unpleasant images that reveal conservation issues explicitly. For example, nowadays it is common to see images of polar bears – a remarkable and likable flagship species – suffering the dramatic consequences of climate change.
Therefore, marketing can play an important role in species conservation strategies. Currently, there is also a trend to humanise wild animals, which, combined with targeted advertising, can effectively raise social awareness on the importance of species conservation. That said, the objectives of nature conservation should always be the main focus, so these advertising techniques should never be used purely to raise funds (which is sometimes the case, unfortunately).
There are two examples of this type of practice in Spain: Chu-Lin and Copito de Nieve. Chu-Lin was the first panda bear to be born in captivity in a Western country and lived for 13 years in a zoo in Madrid. His story marked the childhood of many and the zoo set its visitor record during those years. Another famous example is Copito de Nieve (“Snowflake”), an albino gorilla that became a symbol of the city of Barcelona for several decades, until his death in 2003. These animals – both of which belonged to flagship species – were loved by the public and awoke a much-needed spirit of conservationism and protectionism (partly due to marketing).
Problems of the management of flagship species
Marketing can become a problem, however, when it is not used for its original conservation purposes (for example, simply to raise money). When talking about flagship species, it must also be taken into account that there are some drawbacks in their management, as organisations risk neglecting other species. WWF flagship species, for example, consist mainly of mammals, a few birds and almost no plants.
It is important to remember that not only flagship species inhabit this planet and that there are many other endangered groups that also need protection, such as indicator species (like corals, whose presence in a particular system indicates its health status) or keystone species (such as prairie dogs, which play a very important role in the structure, function or production of an ecosystem). Umbrella species, which are linked to flagship species, are also key to conservation biology.
These species require vast and complex habitats, so their conservation actually involves the conservation of their entire system. Many of them are also considered flagship species. An example is the gorilla in Africa; in order to conserve this species, it is necessary to protect everything in its habitat, including less “photogenic” species.
Additionally, umbrella species can help spot potential reserves, establish the minimum size of these conservation areas or reserves, and determine the composition, structure and processes of ecosystems.
Translated by Carlos Heras