Updated: May 15
Frank van Veen is a professor of ecology and conservation at the University of Exeter.
The flagship species idea is often put forward as the solution to the possible tension between conservation approaches focussed on a few charismatic species and those focussed on whole habitats/landscapes/ecosystems. It seems to make a lot of sense to use the appeal of, say, giant pandas to harness global interest, and the funding that comes with it, to protect that species in the wild and thereby its habitat and all the other species that share it along with it, as collateral wins. After all, it’s unlikely that those Chinese mountain forests would have attracted anywhere near the kind of conservation effort and level of protection they have now, had they not been home to the giant panda.
So what’s not to like? Well for one, it’s exactly that last point – what about all those forests and other habitats that harbour great biodiversity but just don’t happen to be home to one of those species with global appeal? It’s likely they get a much smaller share of conservation interest and funding than if these were directed according to an objective model of conservation value, without flagship species sucking a disproportionate share to their own cause. Of course, there are flaws in this argument too. For one, this is not a zero-sum game – there is not a fixed amount of conservation effort and funding in the world. Especially when it comes to charitable giving and philanthropy, there is no doubt that those charismatic flagship species attract a lot of money and interest in conservation that would otherwise not be there.
The poster-child Bornean orang-utan (photo: Frank van Veen)
In the Indonesian part of Borneo (Kalimantan), where much of my work is currently focused, the poster child for conservation is the Bornean orang-utan. Indeed, I think it is fair to say that the vast majority of foreign conservation activity and funding over the years in Kalimantan has been focused on this flagship species and there can be little doubt that this has had a positive impact on the protection of their forest home. However, it’s not all rosy. A large proportion of the so-called conservation funds directed at orang-utans flows into rehabilitation projects, where orphans rescued from the pet-trade and individuals displaced by habitat destruction are prepared to be released back into the wild. It’s hard to argue with the animal welfare case for these projects – the only alternative would be to put these animals down. But the conservation value is debatable.
Firstly, where are those rehabilitated/relocated individuals to be released? Ideally, this requires one to find areas of suitable habitat in which orang-utans are nevertheless not present. For them to be useful release sites, these areas need to be protected and the reasons for the orang-utan’s absence (e.g. hunting) need to be addressed. Obviously, if successfully applied, this approach should result in positive conservation outcomes for the wider biodiversity in the forest areas in question. However, such areas are in short supply and generally very remote, and it is not unusual to hear about cases where relocated (rather than rehabilitated) animals are released in more accessible areas that already have healthy orang-utan populations, potentially pushing those above the carrying capacity of the habitat and probably causing significant disturbance to the social structure of the resident animals. The huge costs and effort required to rehabilitate rescued pets and orphans could arguably be better directed to forest protection and programmes to reduce hunting so that many more animals can be protected in the wild than we can ever hope to rehome in ideal release locations. Prevention is better than cure – I don’t think many people would argue against that, but the immediate welfare needs of animals that need rescuing here and now will always trump such longer-term planning, making it difficult to move away from the status quo.
Watching a rehabilitated orang-utan at a pre-release site (photo: Frank van Veen)
None of these arguments are new of course. There is however another aspect to this that perhaps gets less attention and it is the one that I alluded to in the title of this blog: Whose flagship is it anyway? It is increasingly recognised that conservation in biodiverse regions of the developing world by westerners often has uncomfortably colonialist roots. The subject of Decolonising Conservation is getting increasing attention, and rightly so (the reading list here is a good place to start if you want to catch up).
If we want to move away from imposing Western priorities on the places where we practice conservation, we should ask ourselves whether the flagship species that we focus our attention on are equally important to the local communities in those places. To be sustainable and morally just, conservation should benefit indigenous people and ideally be driven by them. To achieve this, understanding what motivates them to protect their natural environment would be a good starting point.
So, are our western priorities (flagships) and those of the indigenous people aligned? I recall being on an expedition in Kalimantan with a group of western volunteers and indigenous Dayak villagers, when one of the latter asked why we westerners were so obsessed with orang-utans - why did we think they were more important than squirrels? On another occasion, on a visit to an orang-utan rehabilitation centre it was striking that the veterinary care provided to the orang-utans was far better than the healthcare that nearby villagers had access to. Not surprising then that someone remarked that we westerners obviously cared more for the orang-utans than for them. An uncomfortable truth perhaps. So, it is difficult to escape the feeling that the western orang-utan flagship approach that brings in lots of attention and funds, at the same time can create a sense among the local people that we have different priorities to them, thereby creating barriers to our cooperation towards a common goal of protecting the environment in which they live.
As a bit of a fish nerd, I like to dip a net in every stream and puddle I get a chance to, and invariably I find local people enthusiastically joining in and keen to share their knowledge. The Dayak people traditionally have their settlements along rivers and freshwater fish have always made up an important part of their diet, so there is a lot of interest and accumulated knowledge there. There is also a lot of concern about declining catches and the disappearance of once-abundant species. Human activities, such as logging, mining and industrial farming are having major impacts on the rivers through increased sedimentation, pollution and destruction of the riverbed, which all affect fish populations. On top of that, the conversion of forest to other land uses often leads to the destruction of fish spawning sites and nursery habitat in the smaller tributary streams and swamps in the catchments of these rivers. As conservationists, we should care about these fishes as much as the local people do. In 2019 I joined an IUCN Red List workshop on the freshwater fishes of the Sunda Region in which we assessed 400 of the >1,000 known fish species of this area. You can read the report here, but in short, about one-third of these species were data deficient (not enough information to assess their conservation status) and about half of the remaining two-thirds were categorised as ‘threatened’ (i.e. either Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered). Three-quarters of the threatened species endemic to Borneo are restricted to peat swamps and other blackwater habitats (mainly associated with ‘Kerangas’ heath forest). That’s a lot of threatened species all occurring in the same geographic areas and habitats that also happen to coincide with the main orang-utan strongholds.
Freshwater fish play an important part in the lives of the Dayak people (photo: Bernat Ripoll Capilla/ Borneo Nature Foundation)
So, I think that in Kalimantan we have an opportunity to refocus conservation programmes on healthy rivers and healthy fish populations, thereby pursuing shared interests with the indigenous population, leading to stronger partnerships. This does not need to be at the expense of the orang-utans either – healthy rivers and fish populations require intact forest in their catchments. Funding restraints, however, remain a significant hurdle in such a transition. It’s generally much easier to get people to pledge money with a picture of a cute baby orang-utan they can ‘adopt’ than with a narrative about fish and people they’ve never heard of. Nevertheless, the cute orang-utan’s interests and those of the fish and the people can all be aligned and funders are increasingly recognising this. Furthermore, government programmes, such as the UK Darwin Initiative, provide opportunities for conservation projects that are centered on the sustainable development needs of the people that live in the biodiverse places we hope to protect, without the need for emotive animal subjects.
Perhaps it is therefore time that we reconsidered the role of traditional flagship species and allow conservation priorities to be guided by the wise people that know that fish are just much more interesting than primates!