Diva species: flagships that sink the fleet

Take any introductory class in conservation biology and you are bound to learn about umbrella species and flagship species; two of the main tools in the conservationist’s toolbox. Umbrella species occur when the conservation of one species (the umbrella) leads indirectly to the conservation of other species, usually because the umbrella species needs a lot of space. Flagship species are those that have particular resonance with an important conservation audience, such as donors, tourists or local people, allowing the flagship to generate resources and support that can be used to conserve many other species.

So far, so much like a conservation biology textbook. But are things always this simple? A lot has been written on these concepts and their practice, and I don’t make any claim to be familiar with it all. But I do have some first-hand experience of a situation in which the flagships and umbrellas began to look like they might get pretty leaky.

Mountain gorillas are possibly the most iconic flagship species for conservation anywhere in the world, and enormous sums of money and political support are generated for their protection. They are also rather large, meaning that they should be able to act as an umbrella for many smaller species with which they share their habitat. This is good news, because the national parks within which mountain gorillas reside are teeming with other species, many of which are endemic or endangered. Gorillas do the PR, and the PAs get protected.

This was certainly the prevailing story when I did my PhD research at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, home to just under half the roughly 700 mountain gorillas in the world today. The gorillas raised huge sums of money for the park, and were generally considered to be doing their job as both flagship and umbrella. But a conversation I had with a senior park official led me to wonder how much longer this would last.

The official had noted the well-known fact that gorillas like eating shrubs and bushes that grow well in gaps where a tree has fallen or been cut. Gorillas are the main attraction for tourists visiting the park, but there aren’t really enough gorillas to satisfy the demand. So, he suggested to me that it might be a good idea to cut some mature trees to allow for more shrubs to grow, thereby providing more food for the gorillas and encouraging their population to increase.

This would be a big win for gorilla conservation, but what would happen to all the other species that are supposed to be in the flagship’s fleet, or sheltering under its umbrella? Bwindi is a small but highly diverse forest, and many of its species are specialists that do better away from any disturbance. In contrast, the plants and accompanying animals that do well in the spaces left when large trees are felled tend to be ‘weedy’ generalist species that might be tasty for gorillas but are of much less conservation concern. So, an intervention designed to promote gorilla conservation might actually be bad news for other species in the forest, and could lead to a worse overall conservation outcome.

This intervention has never happened, and I emphasise that it was nothing more than a passing conversation. At the same time, I think it raises the interesting question of whether tourism at Bwindi is for conservation, or conservation at Bwindi is for tourism. If the former, then the officials suggestion is nonsensical. If the latter, then it might make sense to cut back large swathes of the forest in order to create a kind of gorilla paradise that would make a fortune through tourism, but would bear no resemblance to the forest we see today, and might hold a lot less biodiversity.

If this were to happen the mountain gorilla would become what I propose to call a ‘diva’ species. These are species that appear to be flagships or umbrellas for others, but which actually undermine broader conservation goals through efforts to conserve them. In that sense they come to embody (albeit unknowingly) the “it’s all about me” attitude of certain human celebrities.

Are there any real diva species out there today? Two examples come to mind. First, there are private game reserves in Southern Africa in which certain herbivores are removed to promote species that are attractive to recreational hunters. This creates bizarre artificial ecosystems that look like a conservation success for the large mammal divas, but not for much else. Second, strict protection, such as of tigers in India, can undermine public support for conservation to such an extent that it has the perverse effect of making conservation less effective overall.

If there are other examples, I would love to hear of them. In the meantime, I think it is important to be careful what you wish for, because today’s flagship or umbrella might become tomorrow’s diva.


Thanks to Bill Adams for some helpful suggestions on a draft of this post


7 thoughts on “Diva species: flagships that sink the fleet

  1. Hi Chris – interesting blog!

    One example that occurred to me was the Kruger National Park where many artificial waterholes were put in to support increased wildlife densities and perhaps improve the visibility of animals such as lions (my designated “diva”) for tourists. However the increased prey densities supported higher densities of ungulates such as wildebeest and zebra which brought lions into areas where they had previously been scarce. The suggestion is that this policy was detrimental for “fugitive” species such as cheetahs and wild dogs which had previously occupied these zones free from regular contact with their larger competitors. As I understand it, it may also have contributed to the decline of rarer herbivores such as roan and sable which also compete poorly with more water dependent ungulates and/or may be more vulnerable to lion predation (speculation).

    Of course this policy has now been reversed and many of these waterholes have now been abandoned in a belated attempt to restore the natural balance of habitat heterogeneity with its accompanying variety of spatial refuges…

    Some other possible “diva” species here in the UK might be red and black grouse. These two birds are suffering or have suffered respectively considerable declines, but now have large areas of our moorland exclusively managed for their protection with intensive legal control of mammalian predators such as the stoat, weasel and polecat (all of which are relative unknowns in terms of their own nationwide population trends) and illegal persecution of raptors such as the goshawk, peregrine falcon and now nearly extinct in England, hen harrier. Consequently these moors are considerably more species poor than they should be and present striking, but not very stimulating, environments to any visitor.

    And of course there are the almost entirely unknown effects of releasing 35 million non-native pheasants and several more million red-legged partridge on our landscape year on year, with suggestions that they outcompete native grey partridge and may have enormous impacts on invertebrate populations (e.g. butterflies). Not quite what you were driving at with your “diva” species idea I know, but an interesting example of landscape management for one species.

  2. Dear Chris,

    Thank you for an insightful post. I completely agree that flagship species can create conflicts and distort management options. In fact I have, in my own work, documented a situation of potential conflict between flagship species in Tortuguero National Park, in Costa Rica, where the predation of sea turtles by jaguars is increasing fast and management might need to be considered at some point.

    That said, I think one way of moving away from the “diva species” situation is to acknowledge that trying to use a single species for marketing and management is like trying to build a house using just a hammer. Conservationists have different tools in their toolbox and each can and should be used to serve different purposes.

    Some species are good flagships and, in that capacity, they can help us gather support for conservation actions. Others can be used as umbrellas if they can encompass relevant portions of biodiversity from other taxa within their distributions. Trying to find a species that can perform both these roles is likely to be less helpful as these roles are vastly different and work in different spheres. While flagships are a concept that is dependent on the attitudes and values of a target audience, the umbrella species concept is largely a more technical concept which is related with species distributions and habitat requirements. As such, I think that the “diva species” could also be called “Swiss-army-knife species” that conservationists try to use to perform all sorts of tasks only to discover that they underperform in most of them, in the same way a screw driver has only limited uses if used as a wrench.

  3. Hi Chris

    With regards game reserves in South Africa and diva species, it is worth mentioning two other effects: Firstly, because of their diva status, and economic value to tourists, private game reserves have been at the forefront of reintroducing large species to their former habitats where they have become locally extinct, and if these species are ecologically keystone species, this has a knock-on effect for wider ecosystems. The Shamwari game reserve make some claims to be effectively ecologically restoring areas degraded land by reintroducing elephants and other species. Secondly, the desire of hunters to shoot the biggest or rarest specimen has had some odd effects on some game species. Game reserves are cross-breeding various species and sub-species to produce better trophies, or selectively breeding animals to produce unusual colours.

  4. Actually, on further thought, how about the idea of “diva ecosystems”? The idea that some ecosystems are sexier and more photogenic than others, even if they are of lesser biodiversity value, however you might measure that. An example might come from my work in Chile, a country which contains two bioregions with very high levels of endemism and threat, the mediterranean region of the central valley, and the temperate rainforests around northern Patagonia. There is far more conservation action in the temperate rainforests, partly because land prices are lower and there are fewer competing landuses, and so conservation is more cost effective than in the mediterranean region, but also because it is more photogenic. Many people who I spoke to who were creating private nature reserves told me that they were much more attracted to the green forests, blue lakes and snow-capped volcanoes of northern patagonia than the brown, dusty, dry landscapes of the cental valley. “Save the rainforest” is a more marketable slogan than “Save the semi-arid scrubland”.

  5. Pingback: Synthetic Biology and Conservation: Brave New World? | Thinking like a human

  6. I have just been sent an interesting paper called “the flipside of the flagship” by Douglas & Winkel (2014) in Biodiversity Conservation. This argues that in some cases the promotion of one species as a flagship may produce negative sentiments towards other species that are not promoted as flagships, and they put this down to a well-known psychological effect from consumer research showing that ‘top of the line’ products create negative perceptions about ‘inferior’ models. This adds another nice example of how a flagship species may become a Diva species!

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