Flagship Species As Conservation Tools: Koalas As A Case Study
In conversation ecology, the importance of charismatic animals – like dolphins, tigers or elephants – to further a cause has long been recognized. Organization who highlight such animals in their outreach and campaign activities can attract considerable public attention and funding. This research paper presents a case study on how an individual flagship species can be used to achieve stronger local policies for nature conservation.
The authors of this paper discuss different concepts that relate to those charismatic animals, including umbrella and flagship species. An umbrella species is a species whose protection also benefits other species or the entire ecosystem in which they live. A flagship species is recognized as iconic, and has a strong cultural significance globally or in a particular region. A well-known example for a flagship species is the panda bear featured in the logo of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
However, the authors note that, while potentially effective, focusing on flagship species in conservation efforts has also been criticized in the past. For example, a narrow focus on one flagship species for biodiversity conservation in a region could backfire if that species goes extinct in the future.
In Australia, the koala bear is an iconic animal. Koalas have specific physical characteristics that make them especially appealing to humans, especially their baby-like, cuddly look. To showcase the potential of using the koala as a flagship and umbrella species, the authors present a case study which draws on experiences from a community education project conducted from 2001 to 2009 in the Ballarat community in Victoria, Australia.
The goal of the project was to prepare and establish a Koala Plan of Management to protect local koala habitats near the Ballarat municipality. In the preceding years, human population growth had led to increased urbanization and land-use for housing development and construction of roads. However, despite human encroachment, the authors note that one of the challenges for the project was that the koala bear was not officially considered as a threatened species in Victoria.
The project employed a liaison officer from the Australian Koala Foundation in the Ballarat municipality to implement activities like art projects, planting trees and engaging with city councilors and private enterprises. To better target these activities, the project surveyed residents to explore their attitudes towards koalas and different options to protect them. Tree planting and habitat restoration received the most support (93.3%) and least opposition (1.8%) among respondents. But even more restrictive measures like traffic speed limits and restrictions on dog ownership were supported by almost 78% and opposed by only 12% of respondents.
During the project’s lifetime, the municipal council approved a Koala Plan of Management which included restrictions on building permits and retention of trees. Other municipal councils in the region showed interest in replicating this approach.
The authors argue that this achievement was largely due to the focus on the koala as a flagship species in the public education program employed by the project. They stress that targeting schools was one of the key success factors, and was an entry point to influence students’ awareness of and attitudes towards ecological conservation. Students then spread that awareness and attitude change to their household members.
However, while it is plausible and intuitive that the focus on the koala bear was crucial for the outcome, the methods employed in this study do not allow conclusions about the extent to which the flagship species approach contributed to the success of the project.
With regard to changing attitudes, the survey of residents conducted during the beginning of the project is a good starting point. But the survey could have been deployed again after the project, in order to estimate the extent of public opinion change to which the public education program contributed.
In addition to that, the authors dedicate a whole sub-section in the introduction of the article to potential conceptual issues. They identify at least six criticisms of approaches focusing on single flagship species for ecosystem conservation in the academic literature. However, none of these criticisms are addressed in the discussion of the case study. Arguably, it would have been beneficial for animal advocates to see responses to these criticisms as well.
With these limitations in mind, the present case study gives a detailed account of how a flagship species can be used to improve community education and planning regulation to protect habitats. Although koala bears are native only to Australia, the approach applied in this case could inform projects in other countries with similarly iconic animal species.