Extinct flagships: linking extinct and threatened species, by Peter M. Kyne and                      Vanessa M. Adams

Extinct species as conservation champions

The Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction event. This event differs from the previous five in that it is a direct result of human driven environmental change. Combatting this biodiversity crisis requires immediate conservation action that is well resourced and targeted. To achieve this, greater public support is needed. We propose one mechanism to increase public awareness and support for threatened species conservation: extinct flagships. The use of extinct species in marketing conservation is not a new concept . However, and somewhat surprisingly, the use of extinct species in direct marketing of conservation projects for threatened species is not widespread. The obvious, but underutilised, link is to connect lost species (i.e. extinct species) with species that are at risk of extinction (i.e. threatened species – those classified as Critically Endangered, Endangered and Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species ). The flagship species framework provides such an opportunity.

Cultural perspectives of extinction

Some extinct species have an iconic status, being valued in their extinct state in popular culture. Two fabled extinct species that seem to hold a certain reverence in popular culture are the Dodo (high international profile) and the Thylacine (high national profile within Australia). Both are used widely in cultural and commercial marketing , and both once hailed from nations facing current extinction crises; the endemic birds of Mauritius and mammals of Australia are highly threatened groups.

There seems however, to be little meaningful reflection on the status of the extinct species (i.e. they longer exist) or importantly, any connection made to the status of the remaining (extant) fauna. That is, there is little discourse, either academically or publicly, relating the number of extinct species to the number of currently threatened extant species – species which are at risk of the same fate. In theory, we should reflect solemnly on the losses, and learn from these in our consideration of recovering those species now on the threatened list. Instead, some ‘popular’ extinct species are cemented in culture to the point that they have become ‘celebrated’.

Opportunities to use these celebrated extinctions for conservation

The Dodo and the Thylacine are examples of widely recognised and publicised species that could instead be used to champion the threatened species cause. These extinct species present an opportunity to leverage their public familiarity to engage the public in connecting their fate (i.e. that they no longer exists) to the status and likely demise of the remaining (extant) threatened fauna. A shift in cultural perspectives on extinct species away from placing value on them but rather connecting them to the fate of threatened species could allow extinct species to be better utilised in the conservation space. A consideration of extinct species in the flagship framework turns these icons of the past into flagships for conservation. ‘Extinct flagships’ recognise the fate of lost species, with the central mandate: ‘we can’t let this happen again’.

Making extinct flagships a reality

Effective flagship species bridge pre-existing understandings with new conservation agendas. Extinct flagships may fulfil this criterion by bridging the fate of the extinct species to the required action to avert the loss of currently threatened species. The use of extinct flagships as a novel approach to supporting conservation of extant threatened species would need to be accompanied by carefully designed media and marketing campaigns that target the message appropriately for the audience. For example, new flagship design should be informed by research to test whether the public can: 1) make the connection between the fate of extinct species and the conservation status of threatened species, and 2) whether this connection stimulates behavioural change or action such as donating to threatened species causes. Existing popular extinct species such as the Dodo and Thylacine present unique opportunities to design and test extinct flagships through active conservation campaigns. If successful, the use of extinct flagships could be expanded to other extinct species; the extinct Passenger Pigeon of North American could champion the conservation of the continent’s 25 threatened terrestrial birds, and the Pinta Island Tortoise, the conservation of the world’s nearly 2,000 threatened amphibians.


Enjoy free access to the study Extinct flagships: linking extinct and threatened species until 3rd June 2016.

Image curtesy of Peter Kyne.

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