Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

National symbols: the demise of iconic wildlife

Only drastic action by the United States in the 1940s prevented its national bird, the bald eagle, from becoming extinct Only drastic action by the United States in the 1940s prevented its national bird, the bald eagle, from becoming extinct Steve Boice
01 Aug
Despite their high profiles, most of the world’s national animal symbols are lacking in protection, with a significant proportion now revealed to be experiencing population decline

The bald eagle has been the national bird of the United States since 1782, when there were as many as 100,000 nesting individuals across North America. By the mid-20th century, however, it was nearing extinction, thanks to hunting, poisoning and severe habitat destruction. It has taken immense conservation efforts and national legislation – particularly the 1940 Bald Eagle Protection Act – to restore the population to a ‘least concern’ ranking on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Researchers at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science have found that as many as 45 per cent of the world’s national animal symbols are experiencing significant population decline, while 35 per cent are threatened with extinction. 189 of the world’s 231 national animal symbols were included in the study, the rest being either unidentifiable to a species level, prehistoric, imaginary – the Scottish unicorn, for instance – and/or unevaluated by the IUCN. Overall, only 16 per cent of species included in the research are in any way protected in the countries where they are considered national symbols.

pie chart

‘Countries that have invested in strong protection of national symbols have seen population rebound and conservation success,’ reveals Neil Hammerschlag, research assistant professor at the Department of Marine Ecosystems and Society, University of Miami, and co-author of the study. While he acknowledges that the ecological value of these species wasn’t measured specifically, he adds, ‘national symbols can serve as flagship species, indirectly benefiting other species and the general ecosystems in which they occur.’

Two of the UK’s own national animals – the European robin (or robin redbreast) and the red deer – are not officially protected, yet both are on the increase. Many other species are far less fortunate, with two national symbols already extinct – the dodo of Mauritius, and the auroch of Moldova – while others are now completely absent from the country in question; Morocco, Togo, Gambia and Sierra Leone all have the African lion as a national symbol, despite it being extinct in all four nations.

‘The results of the study pose a sobering question,’ says Austin Gallagher, co-author of the report and adjunct assistant professor at the Rosenstiel School. ‘If a country isn’t able to conserve or protect its own national symbol, what hope do any other species in that country have?’

This was published in the August 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

Related items

Subscribe and Save!

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Sign up for our weekly newsletter today and get a FREE eBook collection!

geo line break v3

University of Winchester

geo line break v3


Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Derby




Travel the Unknown

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...


Winning entries include meerkats, zebra sharks and courting nudibranches


The UN’s World Ocean Day is a day to celebrate…


Breathe easier this World Environment day with this collection of…


A 50-year look at the activity of aphids, moths, butterflies…


The British Isles are packed with natural landmarks that serve…


The prestigious photography awards to go on display in some…


The discovery of a slow-motion earthquake near Istanbul, which took…


The 2014 to 2016 marine heatwave, which took place off…


Marco Magrini discovers that hydrogen is back, but hopefully not…


 A ten-year analysis of chimpanzees has revealed that the presence…


The return of the pine marten to UK forests has…


A project in Orkney is converting excess wind energy into…


Mountains provide a dramatic sight at the best of times,…


A surge in reports of dead hares has resulted in…


Four scientists have banded together to make the case against the farming of octopuses, arguing…


As planetary oil consumption hits the 100-million-barrel mark Marco Magrini…


A ship that ran aground early in February has been…


Two whale populations on either side of the African continent…


March traditionally heralds the beginning of spring, a time of…


An innovative project to utilise Laos’ elephant experts in service…