By Protecting the Big, Famous Critters, We Can Preserve Biodiversity as a Whole

New paper says focus on charismatic megafauna has a positive ripple effect

For many years now, a debate has raged within wildlife advocacy organizations and among conservation biologists about whether the popular focus on charismatic megafuana distracts from the larger goals of protecting landscapes and preserving biodiversity. The argument goes like this: Big, often furry, and adorable-looking animals get all of the love and attention from the public and the media, while the needs of other critters fall by the wayside. For example, Cecil the lion gets shot and the Internet goes ballistic; meanwhile a slow and steady extinction crisis is hammering the world’s amphibians, and barely anyone notices. Often, the infatuation with charismatic megafauna isn’t good science, some critics say. A flagship species isn’t exactly a keystone species; if large, fuzzy critters disappear from their environments, the ecosystem doesn’t necessarily collapse.

giant panda on a tree limbPhotos courtesy of Duke UniversityThe researchers examined the Chinese government’s substantial investments in giant panda conservation and found that protection of that cuddly creature has a had positive ripple effect that benefits other species.

A new study released today in the journal Conservation Biology offers a rebuttal of sorts to the now-common critique of species-focused conservation. Duke University researcher Stuart Pimm and a Chinese colleague, Binbin Li, examined the Chinese government’s substantial investments in giant panda conservation and found that protection of that cuddly creature has a had positive ripple effect that benefits other species. The panda has become a kind of “umbrella species”: In trying to protect the panda, the Chinese government has established a network of nature reserves that are also home to many other threatened or endangered amphibians, birds, and mammals. “Investing in almost any panda habitats will benefit many other endemic [species],” the paper concludes.

“The obvious questions is: Does it do good for other species [to focus on charismatic megafauna]?” Professor Pimm said to me in an interview Wednesday. “That’s exactly why we did this study — it’s exactly to answer that question. And it’s a very good question. For someone like me who is concerned about biodiversity as a whole, we wanted to address the issue. … The answer broadly is that it protects a lot of other species, it protects biodiversity broadly.”

deerBlue sheep are among several species that have benefitted from habitat conservation connected to protecting the giant panda.

Li and Pimm started with maps compiled by naturalists that show the distribution of species in China, with a special emphasis on species that are endemic to China. They found that many of those species are found in the mountains of Sichuan province — which is the same places where the panda now survives in the wild.

The study then looked at which of those areas are protected as nature reserves, especially those that were established with the goal of protecting panda habitat. The researchers concluded that the giant panda’s remaining wild habitat overlaps with 70 percent of forest bird species, 70 percent of forest mammals, and 31 percent of forest amphibians found only in China. Other species that have benefitted from habitat conservation connected to protecting the giant panda include the golden snub-nosed monkey, the blue sheep, a small bird called the maroon-backed accentor, the golden pheasant, and the blue eared pheasant.

“People have been talking about umbrella species for a long time, and they have been talking about it in an intellectual way,” Pimm said. “Whereas China is implementing the umbrella species concept, and it’s doing a very good job at it.”

Li and Pimm’s study does come with a couple of caveats. They caution that there are many “gap species” that are threatened or endangered but which do not live in areas set aside to protect pandas. “There are other areas that need protection, too,” Pimm said.

Still, the report’s findings are encouraging, as they demonstrate that a focus on the most media-genic species can assist other species as well. “Many have worried that in protecting the giant panda, we might be neglecting other species,” Li said in a press release announcing the report’s conclusions. “But this isn’t the case. While the government and the public keep focusing on pandas, it is easier to establish new protected areas and corridors in this region. It gives the chance to protect the most important areas for other native species while protecting more panda habitats.”

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