What Is a Flagship Species? Examples and Role in Conservation

examples of flagship species illustration

Treehugger / Julie Bang

A flagship species is a charismatic animal that has been identified to help raise awareness about the urgent need for action and funding around conservation issues in a specific part of the world. These animals are usually among the most threatened or endangered species, and they are used to show the environmental damage that’s happening in the geographic region where they live.

Choosing a flagship species that is easy to recognize and that people have positive associations with is often the most effective way to communicate the need for increased conservation efforts. Flagship species almost always have strong cultural associations and ecological importance. By identifying and raising both the local and global profile of these species, it becomes easier to convince people to protect them and their ecosystems.

List of Flagship Species

The following animals are some of the most popular flagship species:

  • Giant panda
  • Polar bear
  • Tigers
  • Sea turtles
  • Manatees
  • Elephants
  • Bald eagle
  • Black rhino
  • Gorilla
  • Golden lion tamarin

Definition of a Flagship Species

European otter resting on seaweed covered shoreline rocks
European otter (Lutra lutra) in Yell, Shetland Islands, Scotland. James Warwick / Getty Images

In conservation marketing and education, one of the most important features of a flagship species is its ability to raise awareness. Education of the local community, policymakers, and research funders is an essential step in creating successful conservation programs, and flagship species are the ambassadors who bring those audiences into the conversation. While most flagship species are large, impressive terrestrial species, that doesn’t mean that other types of animals or even plants are not able to serve as effective symbols of the importance of conservation.

One flagship species, the European otter, has been used to prevent land development and to raise money for biodiversity action plans, while whales have become international symbols of a moral mandate for greater ocean conservation efforts. Whale-watching tours have even flourished as a popular form of ecotourism due to the success of touting whales as flagship species.

Some Australian researchers have even argued that flagship species can be useful for raising funding for conservation efforts that benefit all of the species in the area the flagship species inhabits. They believe that flagship species can be chosen based on conservation goals and target audiences rather than how charismatic a species may be. Choosing flagship species based solely on arbitrary features and then using them as a fundraising tool remains a controversial practice in the scientific and conservation communities.

Flagship Species Examples

Some of the most notable flagship species also play important roles in the ecosystems they live in. Whether they are an apex predator or they keep their habitat healthy by redistributing plant seeds, these flagship species do more than just raise money and awareness. 

Giant Panda

close up portrait of a Panda in Chengdu , China , Sichuan
kiszon pascal / Getty Images

The giant panda can be found in the Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu provinces of China. They are a threatened and protected species that numbers just over 1,800 individuals in the wild. Because of habitat fragmentation, natural segregation, and human influence, the population of giant pandas is divided into 33 small subpopulations throughout forested mountainous regions of China. In 1984, a Chinese research team from Peking University became only the second group ever to study wild pandas and observe their populations, which led to the recognition of their endangered status by the Chinese government. After that, the Chinese Ministry of Forestry and the World Wildlife Fund wrote a national conservation plan for the giant panda. This guidance was adopted by the Chinese government in 1992 and worldwide conservation and breeding efforts have resulted in an increase in their population.

Bald Eagle

Nesting bald eagle with baby
Mark Newman / Getty Images

The threat of extinction because of pesticides and hunting once loomed over the bald eagle in North America. In 1917, a bounty was imposed on bald eagles in Alaska because of claims by fisherman and farmers that the birds were competing with their livelihood. Even though it had been the national bird of the United States since 1782, the killing of thousands of bald eagles continued until 1940, when the federal Bald Eagle Protection Act was enacted. Between 1940 and 1973 when the Endangered Species Act was signed into law and the bald eagle received increased federal protection, the pesticide DDT wreaked havoc on bird populations. DDT caused the shells of bald eagle eggs to become thin and weak, and adults would crush the eggs while trying to incubate them. Once DDT was banned in 1972, bald eagles saw a dramatic increase in population. The bird was removed from the Endangered Species List in 2007.

Polar Bear

Female polar bear with cubs on iceberg

Vadim Balakin / Getty Images

Polar bears may be best known for their role in raising awareness of the impacts of climate change. Images of the large white mammals floating on melting pieces of sea ice have made them one of the most iconic flagship species.

Disappearing sea ice because of a changing Arctic climate has left polar bears with fewer places to rest, hunt, and mate, leading to increasing competition for territory. The Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears was signed by the governments of Canada, Denmark, Norway, the USSR, and the U.S. in 1973 to recognize the importance of the animal as a significant resource for the region. In 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first listed the polar bear as a Threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources currently lists it as a Vulnerable species.   

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