Story | 21 Sep, 2014

Flagship species: how protecting rhinos can help other threatened wildlife

Marking World Rhino Day, SOS Grantee Bill Konstant, International Rhino Foundation writes this thought provoking article on the role of rhinos as flagship species for conservation.


Flagship species, although not a technical term, is often used when referring to the ability of one threatened species to help drive conservation efforts that also benefit others. It’s most frequently applied to what we to refer to as “charismatic mega-vertebrates” – whales, dolphins, elephants, tigers, gorillas and the like – but there are no hard and fast rules for its use. From a practical point of view, if one threatened species readily draws attention to the plight of others and efforts undertaken on its behalf can help generate support for saving the whole lot, it can be dubbed justifiably as a flagship species for their conservation.

The world’s two rarest and Critically Endangered rhinos – the Sumatran and the Javan – have become flagship species for safeguarding dozens of other threatened Indonesian rainforest animals in the handful of national parks that serve as the planet’s final strongholds for these rhinos. SOS supports protection programmes for Sumatran rhinos in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park and Way Kambas National Park which, together, may hold two-thirds of the species’ remaining population, currently estimated at no more than 100 animals. Rhino Protection Units (RPUs) operating in Java’s Ujung Kulon National Park are also generously supported by SOS and have helped maintain a zero-poaching level for Javan rhinos for more than 15 years. The world population for this species hovers around 50 animals.

Checking IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species, dozens of other terrestrial vertebrates benefit from RPU efforts in Sumatra and Java. Two of these, the Sumatran elephant and Sumatran tiger, are certainly flagship species in their own right, but the list also includes a host of other significant amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Five Vulnerable species, the king cobra - the world’s largest venomous snake – the crestless fireback pheasant, Asian small-clawed and smooth-coated otters, and the binturong, inhabit all three national parks in which RPUs operate. Several threatened birds also benefit from SOS-supported rhino protection programmes in two southern Sumatran national parks: the black partridge, blue-banded kingfisher, short-toed coucal, Storm’s stork, Sunda blue flycatcher, Sunda nightjar, Wallace’s hawk-eagle, and white-winged wood duck.

It’s the long list of threatened mammals, however, that truly bolsters the status of both Sumatran and Javan rhinos as flagship species. Among the more prominent taxa, with ranges that overlap those of forest-dwelling rhinos, are fruit bats, spiny and tree rats, flying squirrels, rabbits, civets, pangolins, mouse deer, sambar deer, tapir, Javan banteng, dholes (wild dogs), clouded leopards, Javan leopards, and a host of threatened primates – at least 10 species of tarsier, loris, leaf monkey, macaque, gibbon, and siamang. In northern Sumatra’s Gunung Leuser National Park, where an RPU program is under development, orangutans can also be added to this list.

What’s important to remember is that all these species are threatened with extinction at some level, and they undoubtedly represent many, many more equally threatened freshwater vertebrates, as well as invertebrates and plants from both the terrestrial and aquatic realms.

As Sumatran and Javan rhino populations have suffered centuries of habitat destruction and illegal hunting for their horns, last-ditch efforts to protect these two Critically Endangered flagship species, potentially will have a significant multiplier effect on species survival in this global biodiversity hotspot.