Making the most of our flagship species

Private sponsorship and conservation efficiency

It’s well known that some species have greater public appeal than others. The species with the greatest appeal are often furry mammals such as the koala or polar bear, or in places like New Zealand, there are large birds like the kiwi. Research has shown that people are willing to pay more for conserving these species than other species, even if the other species are also threatened with extinction. (See the box ‘The Lion’s share’)

If people are donating their own money to help specific threatened species, and possibly ignoring other threatened species, does it really matter? If you’re after the best conservation outcomes, our new analysis suggests it really does.

Bias and distortion

The bias toward some species has been criticized by some as unfair and inefficient. It’s unfair because why should a cute and cuddly animal get more money than a not-so-cute animal (like a toad). It’s inefficient because focussing on a subset of threatened species may not be achieving the best overall conservation outcomes. Of course, figuring out what’s fair and efficient in the conservation of threatened species is quite challenging.

But this bias has other problems. It may even be self-reinforcing. Species receiving a lot of attention often get splashy ad campaigns for their conservation, which further increases their exposure and appeal.

Even in government programs designed to conserve all threatened species, the money spent on conservation is often biased towards species that have public appeal. Politicians, after all, like to reflect the will of the people in their decision making and the bottom line is that there’s never enough to meet all our conservation needs.

The net effect of this bias is that it creates ‘have’ and ‘have-not’ species. Some species have the appeal and get the money, and some don’t.

It’s been argued that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, that there are some advantages to this bias. Iconic species can be used as ‘flagships’ to galvanize public support for conservation, and can also be used to generate donations to conservation programs that may benefit other species.

Sponsoring flagship species does not do nearly as good a job as using sponsorship money as efficiently as possible.

Measuring the value of a flagship?

Given these divergent opinions, the appropriateness of flagship species for conservation has been debated for many years. And central to this debate is the question: how effective are flagship species at helping to achieve broader conservation goals, like conserving biodiversity?

We sought to answer this question using real-life comparisons. We used a case study of New Zealand’s ‘National Partnerships’ scheme. These are private sponsorship programs that help pay for the conservation of 10 of New Zealand’s most iconic bird species. And we were able to compare this investment with a dataset that contains the cost of all the specific activities being considered to conserve all 700 of New Zealand’s most threatened species.

Many of the activities that are needed for the flagship ‘National Partnership’ species are also needed for other species. So, if these activities are sponsored, the other species benefit as well.

We used the amounts of private money being given to the ‘National Partnership’ programs in a ‘prioritization protocol’ (see Joseph et al., 2009) designed for the New Zealand government, to see how many species can be conserved for a given budget.

We created spending scenarios that included the following:

  1. Think only about the sponsored species, and find out if any activities might also help other species;
  2. Think carefully about how money is spent, and try to maximize overlaps in activities between sponsored species and other species; and
  3. Do not use the money on the flagship species, but rather use it as efficiently as possible among all threatened species.

We incorporated these scenarios into simulated baseline government threatened species budgets from $5 to $50 Million (NZ dollars).

Best bang for buck

We found that even the scenario where we only ‘care’ about the flagship species (scenario 1), that there were benefits for additional species. On average, across budgets, one to two more species could be saved from extinction, thanks to overlaps in activities with the flagship species. So, even if you were only worried about doing things to save the sponsored species, one or two other species would benefit as a result.

However, if we were more careful in how we spent our money, maximizing overlaps in sponsored activities with other species (scenario 2), we could more than double these gains. In other words, even if you are running a program that targets a flagship species, you can achieve better outcomes if you focus on those actions that benefit target and non-target threatened species.

What if we used all the money raised without regard to flagship species (scenario 3)? In other words, what if our aim was simply to optimise the outcomes of all threatened species? If we had the flexibility to spend the private sponsorship money on any species, we could more than double our gains again.

What this means is that conservation for flagship species can indeed provide wider benefits to other species (non-target species), something that is often claimed by conservation marketing efforts. These benefits can rise significantly if this work is done carefully to maximize the shared benefits. But they are not as great as the potential benefits from an objective prioritisation strategy.

Flagships in the balance

Sponsoring flagship species does not do nearly as good a job as using sponsorship money as efficiently as possible. Nonetheless, it’s important to remember that iconic flagship species like koalas, kiwis and polar bears can help to generate private donations for conservation that might not otherwise have been possible at all. So, on balance, the use of flagship species for conservation can provide general conservation benefits. However, it should be used in a flexible approach that maximizes shared activities with other species, and combined with baseline non-biased conservation funding directed towards saving as many species as possible.

One example of a conservation agency that is doing a good job at a combined approach is the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) which offers a variety of donation options. The WWF uses flagship species to promote conservation, and donors can give money directly to conservation activities to help these species. However, donors can also give money to general conservation, allowing flexibility to conserve species that don’t normally get public attention.

The lion’s share

When it comes to resourcing conservation, it helps if the species you’re trying to save are charismatic. But should the cute and the cuddly get the lion share of available resources?

According to the IUCN, around 1,140 species of mammal are threatened around the world. According to a recent analysis (Smith et al, 2012) around 80 of those species are used by international conservation NGOs to raise funds for conservation. These so-called ‘flagship’ species supposedly have high marketing appeal and enable conservation NGOs to achieve considerable success with their sponsorship programs. Smith and colleagues found that existing flagship species are generally large and have forward-facing eyes.

But if money is being raised for 80 charismatic species, what happens to the other 1,060 threatened mammal species? Or, if we want to spread the net a bit further, what about the other 16,000 non-mammal species currently listed as threatened by the IUCN?

Of course the answer you’ll most commonly hear is that raising money from the general public for conservation work requires a strong appeal to a broad audience. No species should be allowed to go extinct but the harsh reality is that when you use animals to raise money you need charismatic megafauna like lions, rhinos and pandas; not interesting and probably deserving species like the Moorean viviparous tree snail or the Gomera green bush-cricket, neither of which you’d want to cuddle.


Smith RJ, D Verissimo, NJB Isaac & KE Jones (2012). Identifying Cinderella species: uncovering mammals with conservation flagship appeal. Conservation Letters 5: 205-212. [Plus read Decision Point #69, p4,5, for a longer discussion on this issue of choice.]

Maximising benefits from flagships

To maximise biodiversity gains from private funding of flagship species, we recommend:

(i) Use objective criteria for baseline funding of threatened species conservation, and use private funding for flagship species conservation as efficiently as possible to maximise shared benefits with other species. If private donors are made aware of the ancillary gains from their flagship species sponsorship, this may encourage further donations or new partners.

(ii) Encourage donations to a broader suite of flagship species, to maximize possibilities for efficient sponsorship through shared actions with other species. Using a relatively large ‘flagship fleet’ can potentially appeal to a larger pool of donors. Our results show that a ‘flagship fleet’ can also allow additional flexibility to increase the efficiency of allocating conservation funding. If donors wish to sponsor an individual species, they can be encouraged to sponsor species whose conservation actions result in the greatest additional biodiversity gains. If donors are willing to sponsor a ‘flagship fleet’ of species, the money can be used to fund the specific actions with the greatest additional biodiversity gains.

(iii) Explore the possibility of encouraging private funding for general biodiversity goals. Although private funding for flagship species can help to conserve biodiversity, in general, it can only supplement, not replace, funding based on objective criteria. If such supplemental funding can be used in the most efficient manner possible, the greatest biodiversity gains can be achieved.

More info: Joseph Bennett


Bennett JR, R Maloney & HP Possingham (2015). Biodiversity gains from efficient use of private sponsorship for flagship species conservation. Proc. R. Soc. B

Joseph LN, R Maloney & HP Possingham (2009). Optimal allocation of resources among threatened species: a project prioritization protocol. Conservation Biology, 23:328-338. [Plus read Decision Point #29, p8-10, for a user-friendly intro to the project prioritisation protocol]

Leave a Reply