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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.

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