Communicating conservation science in post flagship species New Zealand.

A flagship species is the creature chosen by a conservation organisation to represent that organisation. The most famous of these is the giant panda that was adopted by the WWF as their logo in the 1960s (1). There are various lists of features that a creature needs in order to be successful as a flagship species, but the two features that I will be focusing on today are that the animal has a positive cultural significance and is rare (2).

The unstated aim of using a flagship species for conservation is this: that, by protecting our charismatic flagship, we protect the wider ecosystem. A successful flagship creature, therefore, is one that has enough charisma (3) to make people feel not only care, but to feel so much care that they donate money, change their activities or even give something up because of their care for that creature. We’re not just looking to generate interest; we actually want to generate or change behaviours. The choice of flagship creature is, therefore, very important.

I have chosen three native and endemic birds that, over the years, have served as New Zealand conservation flagship creatures (4). They are the takahē, the Chatham Island black robin and the kãkãpõ. These birds have some of the features common amongst flagship species. They are large vertebrates and are visible to the naked eye and are rare. Each of them has also played a part within the popular culture of New Zealand (5).

Importantly, however, these birds no longer share an ecosystem with people. We live so separately now that encounters between New Zealanders and these birds is always through a media gatekeeper. The stories that the media have chosen to tell and the ways in which they have chosen to portray these birds have constructed the charisma around them. I am not denying that these birds all have an element of innate charisma, but, for a public that has never actually spent one on one time with these creatures, their charisma is constructed (6). I should emphasize that each of these birds is classed as nationally critical, with numbers of the entire population of each species under 300 individuals.

If we were able to plot public interest in these three bird species versus time, I believe that we’d get a graph with three peaks. The peak of the takahē line would be in the early 1950s, and that of the Chatham Island black robin would be in the 1980s. The kãkãpõ peak would be now.

Before 1948, takahē were thought to be extinct and the North Island takahē actually is extinct. All the animals left are South Island takahē. Media interest in the takahē would have peaked around the early 1950s with their rediscovery in the Murchison mountains, an event that hit the papers as far away as London. But there are only so many different ways that the headline “not actually extinct” can be spun. So the media attention would have dropped away because there is nothing new to say about the birds. This attention never drops to zero, but there is little newsworthy in business as usual.

Then, in the 1980s when, famously, there were only five Chatham Island Black Robins, there would have been another peak in media attention. There were two “Wild South” documentaries on the black robins (7) and Mary Taylor’s gorgeously illustrated children’s book “Old Blue, the rarest bird in the world” was published in 1993. But, again, even though the population of these birds has been gently increasing, the media attention has decreased to the point that my first year university biology students had never heard the story of the recovery of these birds.

We are, of course, at the moment in the middle of the era of peak kãkãpõ (8). The YouTube clip of Sirocco the kãkãpõ trying to mate with Mark Cowardine’s head during the filming of the BBC series “Last chance to see” here in 2009 went viral with millions of views. Sirocco also tweets (or booms) about conservation for the department of conservation as their Spokesbird. There are multiple layers of media framing here it would be interesting to look at more closely.

But, at some point, the kãkãpõ will have had their 15 minutes of fame and the media will move on to the next species, whatever that may be.

The media story of these birds ends not only because the headline writers have run out of imagination but also because the population management practices change. During the active management period, when there are very few individuals and conservationists monitor the population closely, it is relatively easy for a journalist to join the field team to cover the recovery effort. But, once the management becomes more hands off and the animals are left to their own devices, the access to them decreases (9).

The message with which we leave the public is, however, troubling. With no news stories we leave the impression that the species has been “saved.” Maybe, if we are not seen to be managing a crisis, then the crisis must be over.

But is this a fairy tale ending? Vladimir Propp was a Russian who wrote the book (10) on the anatomy of the fairy story. If you use his typology to analyse the stories that we tell about conservation, it has many of the elements of a fairy story. We have a hero, and a journey. We have insurmountable odds and good triumphs over evil. And, although no one has ever included “and the species lived happily ever after,” this form is so imbedded into our cultures that the public fills in the blank of that last step. The use of the fairy tale form makes the “happily ever after” ending implicit even though we don’t say it explicitly.

The other troubling conclusion is: That we have the power to bring species back from the brink of extinction. It has been done before so we could do it again, right? The shadow side of this statement is that until and unless there is a single digit population crisis, we don’t need to act. This is terrifying. This kind of intensive management also only works with creatures of a particular size, manageability and lifestyle (11). Back from the brink of extinction is another great story, but a genuinely rubbish way of running a conservation effort.

In February 2012, Paul Callaghan gave a lecture in which he outlined his vision for a pest free New Zealand (12). Individuals and groups throughout the country have leapt at this challenge.

The vision of a pest free (it is also called predator free) New Zealand is so important because it is a statement that clearly indicates that as a nation we are no longer going to let species hover on the brink of extinction before protecting them. It is also important because I think that New Zealand is the first to get here. By “here” I mean this: The unstated aim of flagship conservation is that, by protecting our charismatic flagship species, we protect the wider ecosystem. I think that we are the first to state that we’re protecting an ecosystem in order to protect all the flora, fauna and fungi that live within it, including our charismatic flagship species. It is important to note, however, that we may never have reached this point without initially going through the flagship species stage.

Removing pest and predator species from New Zealand means that we are not just focusing on the animals that society has deemed to be important through innate charisma and the media framing of that charisma. This is an ecosystematic approach and very much science based.

But, up to now, science has not been emphasized in conservation communication. There really is little pragmatic basis for the conservation of species whose numbers have reached such a low level that they play little to no functional part in their ecosystem. The media has made these animals important by speaking to the emotions and focusing on the animal’s charisma and rarity rather than discussing them within an ecological and scientific framework.

By now focusing on protecting the ecosystem, we’re asking the public to put their emotions aside, lay their trust in science and give us the social licence that will allow us to drop a poison over huge areas of land which, interestingly, has its own media constructions as wild, pristine and pure. Conservation communication has, however, appealed to emotion so much and given little context for so long, that justifying potentially controversial actions with “Yeah, but the science!” is being met, in some quarters, with great hostility. We have changed the communications paradigm from communicating to people’s reason rather than to their emotions, but we have not told the public that this paradigm has changed.

This is a fantastically knotty problem and communication opportunity!

So what do we do?

We know that communicating to people’s emotions does work to generate interest in a topic or animal. It is a great hook for a story and a good headline generator. But extensive, long term pest control and monitoring is going to be a bit short on headlines. So we need to get complicated and tell stories that have depth, nuance and science.

Let us, for example, not fall into the trap of anthropomorphising pest species as an enemy that must be defeated. Framing possums as a villain ignores what amazing animals they actually are. Of course they are not meant to be here and are doing damage to our ecosystems. But “ours” and “theirs” is a false construct. Lets find a way of communicating our ecology that involves both valuing our local ecosystems because they are the only things over which we have direct stewardship, and contextualising ourselves within a global ecosystem. In much of the world, in countries that are not stand alone islands, flora and fauna do not respect national boundaries, and they definitely don’t respect Exclusive Economic Zones at sea or the national airspace above the land. Over geological time, continents have moved and how animals got here, whether they are Gondwanan relics, self introduced or introduced by people, these are great stories to tell.

Lets talk about the history of introduced creatures on these islands of ours. Yes, it is vital to get the last of the pigs off the Auckland Islands, but can we talk about why pigs are even there? Before the advent of tinned food and with a history of terrible shipwrecks where people were marooned for years, the only humane thing to do was to release creatures to eat and plant gardens in the hope that the shipwrecked will find them and survive long enough to be rescued.

While we’re contextualising, we must acknowledge the social construction of the creatures we want to remove. For many hedgehogs are synonymous with Beatrix Potter’s Mrs Tiggywinkle and therefore childhood. Cats can be feral killers but are also a beloved family pet. Animals are never just animals and you cannot ignore the social construction of them when you are trying to eradicate them.

When we tell stories of our conservation successes, we need to be aware of the trap of telling only “Great Man” history. Many of us will never be great men due to gender, opportunity, ability or disability but need to feel that we to are involved in the ecology and conservation of this country. There needs to be a place for everybody and their talents in this effort. Instead of “Great Man” history maybe I should say to beware of “Great Individual” history because the value of the team and cooperation is hidden when we focus on the achievements of just on the one individual.

Predator free New Zealand is not a panacea and we have to make sure that it is not framed as such. Spending money on a programme that is all about prevention rather than cure is great, but we’ve gone too far in losing species to extinction that we can’t just work on prevention. Chatham Island black robins and kãkãpõ are already on predator free islands but their conservation and research into areas like their diversity post population bottleneck is still important. New Zealand has amazing capabilities in threatened species research, work that is carried out by passionate, creative and practical people and teams. Lets make sure they get a share of the media spotlight.

We need to tell a good old-fashioned yarn about conservation, one that is complicated, nuanced and brightly coloured.

And, in the wider context of science communication theory, what can it learn from the decades of conservation communication?

Literally hundreds of years of conservation have shown us that communicating to the emotions does work to generate interest and involvement. Other sciences could pick up elements of affective communication strategies and use them in their own practice.

Again, we know that people love stories. They love a good yarn and we have access to a whole world of good science stories that we can tell.

As scientists, we can be slightly suspicious and even dismissive of natural history, because it involves the human and the emotion. It involves personal observation by untrained amateurs. It can feel a bit ad hoc and doesn’t follow the scientific method. But, really, conservation is the ultimate participatory science. You don’t need equipment or even permission to go for a walk in the bush and wonder. And, surely, wonder is the things that we want to generate?

(1) Peter Scott, the English wildlife artist and naturalist who was the son of Robert Falcon Scott, a.k.a. Scott of the Antarctic, designed the original logo.

(2) See, for example: Barua, M., Root-Bernstein, M., Ladle, R. J., Jepson, P. 2011. Defining flagship uses is critical for flagship selection: A critique of the IUCN climate change flagship fleet. AMBIO, 40, 431–435. Barua, M., Gurdak, D.J., Ahmed, R. A., Tamuly, J. 2012. Selecting flagships for invertebrate conservation. Biodiversity and Conservation, 21, 1457–1476. Bowen-Jones, E., Entwistle, A. 2002. Identifying appropriate flagship species: the importance of culture and local contexts. Oryx, 36, 189–195. Verissimo, D., Barua, M., Jepson, P., MacMillan, D.C., Smith R.J. 2011. Selecting marine invertebrate flagship species: Widening the net. Biological Conservation, 145, 4.

(3) For a definition of non-human charisma see Lorimer, J. 2005. Nonhuman charisma. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 25, 911–932.

(4) I am aware that these species, except perhaps for the kãkãpõ, have not been specifically chosen as flagship creatures, but they have served as such and are therefore worthy of attention.

(5) You will have noticed that I’ve not included the kiwi as one of our flagship birds because, as it is the national symbol as well as a physical creature, this complicates the issue.

(6) Peters (2010) talks about two forms of charisma in people: corporeal charisma and attributed charisma, that which is constructed by society around a person. If an animal or any non-human has charisma (see 3 above) then, I argue, that their charisma can also be divided into corporeal charisma and attributed charisma.

Peters, R. 2010. The riddle of charisma. Soc, 47, 516–520.

(7) “Seven Black Robins” was produced in 1980 and “The Black Robin — A Chatham Island Story” in 1989. Both are available on the NZ on Screen website and I recommend both, very highly.

(8) This talk was given before the announcement in December 2015 by the New Zealand Aluminium Smelter that they are to cease their funding for the Kãkãpõ Recovery Programme.

(9) In April 2012 kãkãpõ were taken to Little Barrier Island in the Hauraki Gulf to see if they are able to raise chicks alone.

(10) Morphology of the Folktale by Vladimir Propp, published in Russian in 1928 and translated into English in 1958.

(11) I’m thinking here of fully aquatic species such as the Maui’s dolphins that were an election issue in 2014. We knew that there were 55 of these creatures left but the intensive management that has been used on the birds that I have discussed is not going to work for a fully aquatic mammal like these dolphins. Also, the current crisis in the number of Yellow eyed penguin nests on the Otago Peninsula indicates that although there is much that we can do on land to reduce predators, increase vegetation and supplementary feed in a crisis, once these animals go to sea, we lose that control

(12) You can see the whole talk at

This is the text of the talk I gave at SCANZ in Wellington in December 2015. I hope that it serves as a conversation starter about the way in which we communicate conservation in New Zealand. Should someone have the time and funding to find data to refute these ideas (or to confirm them) I would be absolutely delighted. I would also be delighted to discuss these ideas. If you have questions or comments, I can be contacted at



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store