at Loisaba Conservancy in Northern Kenya.
A pack of African wild dogs at Loisaba Conservancy in Northern Kenya. © Ami Vitale

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Gorilla marketing? Using ‘flagship’ species as face of fundraising campaigns benefits entire ecosystems – when backed by science

New research led by Macquarie University validates wider conservation benefits of flagship species approach but calls for increased scientific rigour

Using charismatic animals like elephants, tigers and giant pandas to front conservation campaigns can boost far more than just consumer reach, according to a new international study led by Australia’s Macquarie University alongside international partners including The Nature Conservancy. When backed by scientific evidence and effective prioritisation, this approach can also deliver significant wider benefits to vulnerable ecosystems, challenging historic criticisms about a handful of iconic species monopolising disproportionate shares of conservation funding. 

Published in the journal Nature Communications, the study – produced in collaboration with institutions including the University of Queensland, the UK’s Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE), the University of Oxford, and conservation NGO WildArk – could have important implications for how such flagship species are identified, prioritised and championed in future, across a host of ecologically critical yet vulnerable landscapes worldwide.

“Perhaps surprisingly, past decisions on which species ‘front’ conservation fundraising campaigns have more often been led by marketing considerations than scientific evidence,” commented spatial planning expert Dr Jennifer McGowan, who led the study for Macquarie University and The Nature Conservancy. “In a critical year for nature, with international governments due to come together at CBD COP15 in Kunming this October to define what will hopefully be a bold new global framework for biodiversity, we hope this study will encourage more rigour to be applied to the future selection and promotion of the powerful flagship species that sit at the heart of so many fundraising campaigns,” she adds.

Conservationists coined the term ‘Cinderella species’ to describe those animals that, despite being charismatic in their own right, are often overlooked in favour of more iconic alternatives. The study highlights examples including the takin (Budorcas taxicolor), a large Himalayan ungulate otherwise known as the ‘gnu goat’, and the red-eared guenon (Cercopithecus erythrotis), a forest-dwelling West African monkey, as unheralded species which could potentially play a significant fundraising role for their critical ecosystems in future.

“Practically speaking, we created a way to prioritize a number of locations around the world that are most important for conserving the lands and water on which we all depend – from wildlife biodiversity to natural carbon storage – and then also identify charismatic species that could be used to direct increased fundraising into these critical landscapes,” Dr McGowan explains.

Dr McGowan’s team merged data on protected areas, the distribution of human impacts, and the ranges of over 19,000 terrestrial and freshwater species worldwide to identify the most efficient network of locations that represent global terrestrial and freshwater biodiversity. Scientists then merged both sets of data into a custom framework that identifies priority places for conservation that also play host to suitable flagship species for maximizing fundraising efforts.

“Simply put, it’s time for us to put some science behind the species we use to market and fundraise for conservation – rather than framing our approach around what’s popular or seen as ‘cute’ by the public,” commented co-author Dr. Hugh Possingham, The Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist.

“Since the flagship species approach to conservation fundraising gained traction, scientists have been preoccupied with the question of whether or not they are the best way to direct investments to protect biodiversity, often becoming bogged-down in arguments based on biology and ecology,” comments senior co-author and DICE director Professor Bob Smith. “Our study is the first to focus on the important conservation question, how can we use these species to raise funds for important places, and what are we compromising in our conservation objectives when we do?”, he adds. 

To learn more about The Nature Conservancy’s global conservation science work, please visit: https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/who-we-are/our-science/

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Notes for Editors

McGowan, J., Beaumont, L. J., Smith, R. J., Chauvenet, A. L. M., Harcourt, R., Atkinson, S., Mittermeier, J. C., Esperon-Rodriguez, M., Baumgartner, J. B., Beattie, A., Dudaniec, R. Y., Grenyer, R., Nipperess, D. A., Stow, A., Possingham, H. P. (2020)

Conservation prioritization can resolve the flagship species conundrum. Nature Communications.

https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-14554-z

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 79 countries and territories, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.