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Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

No Link between Flagship Species and Other Biodiversity in Belize

July 29, 2008

Flagship species such as the giant panda and the jaguar often drive the establishment of small reserves. But is this a good idea? Not according to new research that shows no link between flagship species and biodiversity in a Belize rainforest.

Flagship species “appear to be a poor conservation tool… for delineating the location of very small reserves in the neotropics,” say Tim Caro of the University of California, Davis, and three coauthors in the February 2004 issue of Animal Conservation.

Small reserves for flagship species have been established around the world, including reserves for Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) in Mexico, flamingos in Kenya, and rhinoceroses in Indonesia. Typically, the first step is that local people notice a charismatic species congregating in a particular place, and then government officials and NGOs ultimately establish a reserve there. “Unfortunately, we do not know whether such an ad hoc procedure… is an effective conservation strategy,” say the researchers.

To see whether establishing small reserves based on flagship species can also help protect other species, the researchers compared the biodiversity associated with flagship species to that associated with non-flagship species in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve in western Belize. The flagship species were jaguars (Panthera onca) and Baird’s tapirs (Tapirus bairdii), and the non-flagship species were white-lipped peccaries (Dicotyles pecari) and spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi). For each of the four species, the researchers picked a 1-km2 study site with frequent previous sightings. Then they surveyed these four study sites for five groups of animals: ground-dwelling frogs, birds, leaf-nosed bats, ground-dwelling mammals, and tree-dwelling mammals.

The researchers found little difference in biodiversity between the flagship sites and the non-flagship sites. Moreover, none of the four study sites was particularly species-rich.

At the low end, the sites had only 4 to 21 percent of the leaf-nosed bat species known to live in the forest. At the high end, the sites had only 33 to 39 percent of the bird species known to live in the forest. “Small areas in which flagship mammal species are commonly seen by people do not coincide with areas of vertebrate species richness or abundance,” say the researchers.

This study suggests that flagship species are not a good basis for establishing small reserves. Instead, the researchers recommend choosing small reserves based on factors such as habitat or vegetation type or the presence of many species.

—Robin Meadows
Caro, T. et al. 2004. Preliminary assessment of the flagship species concept at a small scale. Animal Conservation 7:63-70.

White-lipped peccaries (Dicotyles pecari)  Photo by Tanya Dewey, Animal Diversity Web