Flagship individuals can boost conservation
Much-loved species like pandas and polar bears are widely used in conservation campaigns. However, a new study published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment argues that single animal or plant individuals can also be used as flagships, with enormous potential to raise awareness and mobilise public support.
Image: Lua the Antillean manatee (Image credit: L Candisani).
“Flagship individuals typically share some common characteristics”, says lead author Ivan Jarić, from the Czech Academy of Sciences. “They mostly belong to charismatic species, and they often have some particular individual characteristics that make them appealing, such as large body, or unique appearance or behaviour. They frequently interact with humans, and they typically have unique life stories, such as tragic fate. By forming unique connections with people and generating empathy, such individuals can encourage engagement and behavioural change, attract donations and even spark policy changes.”
The paper highlights examples including Lua the Antillean manatee – a species severely depleted by habitat loss and hunting in Brazil. In 1994, Lua – an orphaned calf – was among the first manatees released in a new reintroduction programme.
“Lua quickly became the symbol of the programme, being used in local media and community activities to gain public attention”, says Iran Normande from the Federal University of Alagoas in Brazil, one of the authors of the study. “Because of her docile nature and willingness to approach humans and boats, Lua gave many people their first contact with a wild manatee. This helped to create a local sustainable tourism industry that currently supports up to 400 families. Lua – now ‘middle-aged’ at 31 – was the first released manatee to successfully breed in the wild, and has had six calves.”
However, this example also highlights the potential downside of flagship individuals, as some visitors have fed Lua potentially harmful things including beer and fried fish.
“If properly implemented, the promotion of flagship individuals can produce substantial benefits for conservation from local to global scales”, explains Dr Sarah Crowley from the University of Exeter, another co-author of the study. “This needs to be done with care – both to avoid harm to the individual, and to prevent the spread of false or distorted information. More research is now needed to identify how to promote flagship individuals in a way that generates wider support for conservation, attracts new audiences and limits any potential harm.”
Contact: Ivan Jarić, email@example.com
For more detailed information, check the article published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment:
Jarić, I., Normande, I.C., Arbieu, U., Courchamp, F., Crowley, S.L., Jeschke, J.M., Roll, U., Sherren, K., Thomas-Walters, L., Veríssimo, D. and Ladle, R.J. (2023). Flagship individuals in biodiversity conservation. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.2599 (in press)