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