Polar bear flagship spPrivate 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.

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.

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' designed for the New Zealand government, to see how many species can be conserved for a given budget.

We found that even where we only 'care' about the flagship species, 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.

Image: Iconic flagship species like polar bears might generate signifacnt sponsorship form private donation. We can increase the benefit of these donations if the conservation of other threatened species is taken into acount when making decisions on how these resources are used. Photo: Aleks Terauds