Cinderella animals: endangered species that could be conservation stars

Jeremy Hance
April 18, 2012

Arctic Ice Pack, Beaufort Sea
Somali wild ass and mother in nature. The African wild ass could be a conservation flagship species according to a new paper. Photo by: Bigstock.

A cursory look at big conservation NGOs might convince the public that the only species in peril are tigers, elephants, and pandas when nothing could be further from the truth. So, why do conservation groups roll out the same flagship species over-and-over again? Simple: it is believed these species bring in donations. A new paper in Conservation Letters examines the success of using flagship species in raising money for larger conservation needs, while also pointing out that conservation groups may be overlooking an important fundraising source: "Cinderella animals."

Too much focus on "flagship species"?

Flagship species are animals used by conservation groups to raise funds; these species are almost always mammals, large, and appealing to the general public, often defined as 'cute.' This trend has long faced criticism: some researchers argue that in an age of mass extinction focusing on a few mammals trivializes the scale of the problem and leaves the bulk of the world's threatened species without targeted protection.

But conservation groups counter that protecting flagship species brings benefits to the entire ecosystem, for example, protecting the tiger means conserving the remaining forests of Asia and its biodiversity. In addition, funds raised by flagship species are sometimes dispersed to programs beyond single-species conservation.

The pygmy raccoon could make a good conservation icon according to a new paper. The species is only found on the island of Cozumel. Photo by: Scott Camazine.
The pygmy raccoon could make a good conservation icon according to a new paper. The species is only found on the island of Cozumel. Photo by: Scott Camazine.
"Flagship species campaigns remain a key fundraising tool for international conservation NGOs because they strongly resonate with the general public," write the authors of the study in Conservation Letters.

The researchers examined fundraising efforts by 59 international conservation groups working in developing countries and found that in total 80 flagship species were utilized. Tigers and elephants (both Asian and African) were the most popular.

Following the money, the researchers found that 60 percent of the campaigns raised money directly for the flagship species. Over a third of campaigns raised money for the NGO's general programs, while only 2 percent of the campaigns raised funds for a general conservation issue that would likely benefit many species.

But perhaps most disconcerting was that conservation NGOs took little note of species' threat level.

"The IUCN Red List status of these threatened species was not important [in conservation groups' flagship species], so that Critically Endangered species were no more likely to be selected as flagships than Vulnerable species," the researchers write.

While the researchers admit that their are numerous problems with the flagship strategy, they also note that it is effective in raising funds and attracting new supporters.

Cinderella species

According to the paper, one simple solution to the flagship species problem is to expand the number of such icons. This would help support conservation in new regions as well as protect hugely imperiled animals, the paper argues.

Pennant's red colobus is a Cinderella species. Photo by: Richard Bergl.
Pennant's red colobus is a "Cinderella species." Photo by: Richard Bergl.
To this end, the researchers surveyed the world's 1,098 mammals for those that would fit general flagship criteria: large-bodied and forward facing eyes (a sign of appeal or 'cuteness'). The researchers found 183 species that have not been utilized by conservation groups, over twice as many mammals as conservation groups currently highlight according to the study.

"The approach of NGOs remains overly conservative, so that only a few well-known species receive the bulk of the money raised. In response, we have shown that there are a number of currently neglected mammal species that are both highly threatened and potentially appealing to the public," lead author Robert Smith with the Durrell Institute of COnservation and Ecology (DICE) at the UNiversity of Kent said in a press release. They call these "cinderella species" after the fairy-tale of the long-neglected commoner who overnight becomes a princess.

From these 183 Cinderellas, the study chose five of the best representatives, each of them listed as Critically Endangered, to highlight the potential of broadening the flagship strategy to more species: the Talaud bear cuscus (Ailurops melanotis) from Indonesia, Pennant's red colobus (Procolobus pennantii) of West Africa, the tamaraw or Mindoro dwarf buffalo (Bubalus mindorensis) from the Philippines, the African wild ass (Equus africanus) from the Horn of Africa, and the pygmy raccoon (Procyon pygmaeus) from Mexico.

"Any organization with a biodiversity-based mission has a duty to broaden the conservation benefits of their fundraising. [...] This is why we need to identify additional species for use in these traditional international campaigns," the researchers write.

CITATION: Robert J. Smith, Diogo Verissimo, Nicholas J.B. Isaac, Kate E. Jones. Identifying Cinderella species: uncovering mammals with conservation flagship appeal. Conservation Letters. 2012.

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Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (April 18, 2012).

Cinderella animals: endangered species that could be conservation stars.