Conservation can’t just be a popularity contest

We often work to save the most charismatic species. Is it time to think beyond pandas and tigers?

PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTO ARK

Take a good look at the American burying beetle, aka the giant carrion beetle. Essentially the vulture of the insect world, this bug once scuttled in droves across 35 states, scouring our fruited plains of all manner of carcasses. Today the beetle is assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as critically endangered. Habitat loss, pesticides, and light pollution may be some of the factors that have left this natural recycler hanging on in only four scattered populations.

Like the tiger, the American burying beetle has orange and black stripes; like the tiger, the beetle is declining in number. The tiger is an instantly recognizable symbol of species preservation, but most people aren’t familiar with the beetle.

This discrepancy is an example of the domination of flagship species—the charismatic creatures that nonprofits, government agencies, and other groups use to drum up public interest in conservation. Most flagships represent just three mammalian orders—primates, predators, and ungulates. That’s largely because humans gravitate toward large-bodied animals with forward-facing eyes, humanlike traits that make such species more relatable. As Hugh Possingham, chief scientist for the state of Queensland, Australia, puts it, “It’s hard to look into the eyes of a plant.”

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