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Year : 2015  |  Volume : 13  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 407-413

Grassland Conservation and the Plains-wanderer: A Small Brown Bird Makes an Effective Local Flagship

1 School Life and Environmental Science, The University of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
2 Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life and Environmental Sciences (Burwood Campus), Deakin University, Geelong, Australia
3 Parks Victoria, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Correspondence Address:
Kelly K Miller
Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life and Environmental Sciences (Burwood Campus), Deakin University, Geelong
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/0972-4923.179882

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Date of Web Publication8-Apr-2016


This study explored whether the plains-wanderer (Pedionomus torquatus), a species lacking the criteria outlined in the traditional flagship model, is a suitable local flagship for the Northern Plains Grasslands of Victoria in Australia. Questionnaires and telephone interviews were used to survey residents and natural resource management professionals and volunteers ('NRM participants') in communities living close to the Northern Plains Grasslands. Questionnaires were completed by 146 residents and 69 NRM participants, and 15 interviews were conducted. Results suggest that a significant proportion of the local community was aware of, and valued, the plains-wanderer, and that the species is currently functioning as an effective flagship for the region. Recommendations are provided for the future selection of flagship species in ecosystems where traditional flagships are not present.

Keywords: conservation, flagship species, grasslands, human dimensions, plains-wanderer, threatened species, Northern Plains Grasslands, Victoria, Australia

How to cite this article:
Johnstone K, Miller KK, Antos MJ. Grassland Conservation and the Plains-wanderer: A Small Brown Bird Makes an Effective Local Flagship. Conservat Soc 2015;13:407-13

How to cite this URL:
Johnstone K, Miller KK, Antos MJ. Grassland Conservation and the Plains-wanderer: A Small Brown Bird Makes an Effective Local Flagship. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2015 [cited 2021 Jan 18];13:407-13. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2015/13/4/407/179882

   Introduction Top

The use of 'flagship' species is a popular approach for communicating complex conservation messages to the public. Most commonly defined as popular and charismatic species, flagships “serve as a symbol and rallying point to stimulate conservation awareness and action” (Caro et al. 2004: 63). Unlike other surrogate approaches—including keystone, umbrella or indicator species—flagship species don't necessarily seek to fulfil a significant ecological role. Instead, they fulfil a socio-economic and emotive role by acting as symbols to raise public awareness about conservation (Andelman and Fagan 2000). Key examples include the use of big cats and large grazers as flagship species in African savannas, tigers and orangutans as flagships for Southeast Asian rainforests, the great whales as flagships for the oceans, and perhaps most famously, the giant panda as a flagship for temperate montane forests in China.

The criteria for flagships have been variously defined (Caro et al. 2004), although the most well-known species meet several common criteria; being large in size, charismatic, internationally recognised, and endangered (Andelman and Fagan 2000; Walpole and Leader-Williams 2002; Caro et al. 2004). Such characteristics readily draw public attention and action. A flagship's potential is therefore dependent on that species' individual attributes and characteristics (Tisdell 2006), and how these are publicised. This is often challenging given that certain types of organisms tend to attract disproportionate amounts of public attention; for example large endangered mammal species with forward-facing eyes (Smith et al. 2012).

Past studies on the use of flagships to promote local community involvement for species protection have focused mainly on developing countries (see Bowen-Jones and Entwistle 2002; Kaltenborn et al. 2006; Mulder et al. 2009; Kuriyan 2010). However, to prevent global extinctions, efforts must also focus on developed nations and on less well-known threatened species.

Here we focus on an unusual flagship species at a local scale in northern Victoria, Australia—the plains-wanderer (Pedionomus torquatus) ([Figure 1]). This species does not possess many of the characteristics traditionally associated with charismatic flagship species, but has previously been promoted as a flagship for the native grasslands of northern Victoria—the 'Northern Plains Grasslands' (NPG). Acquisitions of grassland habitat on private land have been made by a number of organisations, including the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP; formerly the Department of Sustainability and Environment, DSE) and Trust for Nature (TFN), primarily for the conservation of the plains-wanderer.
Figure 1: Female plains-wanderer (Pedionomus torquatus) (Photo: M. Antos)

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The NPG—which extended across 730,000 ha prior to European settlement (NPCMN 2014)—represent one of the most threatened and depleted ecosystem types in Australia with less than 1% of their original extent remaining (DSE 2009). Most of the grassland occurs on private land, although there has been a recent government focus on acquiring former grazing land and creating additional conservation reserves to protect the NPG (VEAC 2008; TFN 2010). Major land uses in the Northern Plains include dryland grazing (principally sheep), broad acre dryland cereal cropping, and irrigation for horticulture and dairying. While dryland grazing can occur sympathetically with some vegetation communities including grassy woodlands and native grasslands, cropping and irrigation practices generally result in the removal of native vegetation (Natural Resources Advisory Council 2010).

Together with land clearing and degradation, community attitudes toward land use and development, and a lack of community awareness are among the greatest threats to the remaining grasslands (DSE 2009).

Given that the NPG do not support any faunal species that meet traditional flagship species criteria, the unorthodox plains-wanderer has been promoted as a local flagship for the past 25 years. The plains-wanderer is a small (15-19 cm), well-camouflaged, quail-like bird of great scientific interest due to its taxonomic status (the sole member of the family Pedionomidae) (Christidis and Boles 2008) and unusual breeding systems (Baker-Gabb 1998). A recent study (Jetz et al. 2014) examining the evolutionary distinctiveness and level of threat of all the world's birds ranked the plains-wanderer the number one species in Australia and fourth globally. The species is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, Critically Endangered under the Australian Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999, and Critically Endangered in Victoria under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988.

The aim of this study was to examine whether the plains-wanderer, a species lacking traditional flagship characteristics, is a successful flagship for local conservation; and, if successful, what criteria have helped achieve this success. Understanding how to promote unorthodox species as flagships will improve the use of the flagship concept in efforts to conserve threatened species and ecosystems. Following a long-running campaign to promote this species as a local flagship, we explored:

  1. Community attitudes and awareness of the plains-wanderer;
  2. Community opinions on the characteristics required for a successful flagship species;
  3. Whether community members believe their awareness of the plains-wanderer has increased their awareness and broader understanding of grassland ecosystems.

   Materials and Methods Top

This study focused on three local government areas (shires): Gannawarra, Loddon, and Campaspe ([Figure 2]). These areas are sparsely populated, with a total population in 2011 of 54,640 people (cf. 5.53 million for the state of Victoria; ABS 2012). Most townships are small and those selected for this study are considered representative of the area based on Census data.
Figure 2: Map of Victoria depicting boundaries of shires where questionnaires were distributed to residents. Map Source: DSE 2011

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To target communities living close to Victoria's NPG, the towns of Mitiamo, Pyramid Hill, Gunbower, and Lockington were selected for inclusion in this study. Two sample groups were targeted:

  1. Rural residents (where relevant, this group is split into 'town residents' and 'landholders');
  2. Natural Resource Management (NRM) professionals or volunteers (hereafter referred to as 'NRM participants').

A mixed-methods survey (Dillman 2007; Robson 2011) was used, with postal and online self-administered questionnaires and telephone interviews. Questionnaires explored the knowledge and attitudes of stakeholders regarding the plains-wanderer and its ecosystem. Telephone interviews explored NRM participants' perceptions of the plains-wanderer, its ecosystem and community attitudes. All data were collected in 2011.

A range of recruitment measures was employed to maximise response rates (Dillman 2007):

  • prior to distribution, articles were published in two local newsletters;
  • a book prize incentive worth AUD 50 was offered to one randomly selected participant; and
  • a reminder was sent to online contacts approximately two weeks after distribution of the questionnaire.

Approximately 1,891 questionnaires were distributed to community members and NRM participants using the following methods:

  • 1,275 questionnaires were randomly distributed via Australia Post's unaddressed mail delivery service to community members from the four selected towns;
  • 130 postal questionnaires were distributed to a mailing list of landowners maintained by the then DSE (now the DELWP);
  • ~486 online questionnaires targeted individuals involved in conservation and land management, primarily staff working with Parks Victoria, the DSE, and the North Central Catchment Management Authority. The use of snowball sampling (Wolfer 2007) allowed other NRM participants to be targeted; consequently the number of individuals targeted is only an estimate.

Telephone interviews were conducted with 15 individuals employed within the environmental sector (n=10) or working in a voluntary capacity in local conservation activities (n=5). Two of the interviewees were from New South Wales (NSW) but worked or had significant experience working with the plains-wanderer. Interviews lasted approximately 30 minutes.

On receipt of completed questionnaires, personal information was removed and stored separately to questionnaire responses to retain confidentiality and anonymity. Questionnaires were coded and data entered into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. Data were analysed using Microsoft Excel and SPSS (version 17.0). Percentage data are presented, with Chi-square analysis used to compare responses from different stakeholder groups; comparative data were deemed statistically significant at p<0.05. Qualitative data from interviews and questionnaire comments were coded and comments were grouped into key themes. Anonymous quotes are presented where relevant.

This study was conducted in accordance with Deakin University Human Research Ethics Committee guidelines (Permit 2011-113).

   Results Top

Completed questionnaires were returned by 146 rural residents and 69 NRM participants. Response rates were 10.4% and ~14.2% respectively. We acknowledge that these are relatively low but are comparable to other similar studies using similar methodology (Maguire et al. 2011; Morzillo and Mertig 2011).

Sample profile

Of the 146 rural resident questionnaires, 75% were from landholders and 25% were from town residents. Of the respondents, 56% were male.

Sixty-nine questionnaires were completed by NRM participants from both metropolitan and rural Victoria, as well as two from NSW. Of these respondents, 12% worked in the region selected for residential sampling, and 54% were male.

The dominant land uses of agricultural properties owned by participating rural residents were livestock grazing and cropping. Thirty nine percent reported some form of conservation action on their property and 67% were involved in conservation activities such as habitat protection/revegetation, and in community-based conservation groups (e.g., Landcare).

Community attitudes and awareness

The majority of respondents were aware of the plains-wanderer: 67% of town residents, 89% of landholders, and 93% of NRM participants. Of those residents who were aware of the plains-wanderer (n=123), 61.8% had become aware of the species through conservation groups/individuals, 13.8% through signs, 15.4% through newsletters, and 19.5% through other sources (e.g., word of mouth, media, books etc.); and 25.2% stated 'I have always known about it'. Additionally, 55% of landholders claimed to have observed a plains-wanderer compared to 33% of town residents. This high level of awareness is acknowledged by NRM employees in the region.

”The level of understanding of plains-wanderers in the greater community is quite good” (NRM interviewee).

All respondents were asked to rate the appeal of the plains-wanderer. Ninety percent of NRM participants and 77% of rural residents viewed the plains-wanderer as an appealing species based on one supplied photograph (p<0.05), while 93% of NRM participants and 72% of rural residents believed the plains-wanderer to be 'rare'.

Almost all respondents agreed that the plains-wanderer is worthy of protection (99% NRM participants and 93% rural residents) and requires protection (99% NRM participants and 92% rural residents). However, only 42% of rural residents agreed with the statement “The plains-wanderer is well known within my community” and only 22% agreed with the statement “The plains-wanderer is considered important within my community”. Even fewer believed that the species is internationally recognised (6% of rural residents). Community perceptions do not correspond with the actual high levels of awareness and appeal within the local community recorded by this study, although these may be a result of the relatively low response rate. Very few respondents agreed with negative statements such as “The plains-wanderer is a species of which community members have negative opinions” (15% of rural residents) or “The plains-wanderer is utilising money that should be spent elsewhere” (9% of rural residents).

Participants were asked to agree or disagree with a range of statements on a scale of 1-5 (1=strongly disagree, 5=strongly agree) designed to explore community views about the characteristics of the plains-wanderer. More than 70% of both groups sampled agreed that the plains-wanderer is unique, cryptic, attractive, and plays a significant role in its ecosystem ([Figure 3]). Interviews and questionnaire comments reinforced this:
Figure 3: Resident and NRM participant (Natural Resource Management professionals and volunteers) responses to a range of statements regarding the plains-wanderers' characteristics and ecology (residents n=142, NRM participants n=68) (Photo: M. Antos)

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“There is a lot of pride that this is our particular critter, it is a cute, small, attractive, nice little thing. It is unique to the area and highly threatened, it has a lot to do with aesthetics” (NRM interviewee).

Characteristics required for a successful flagship

Respondents were asked to consider various characteristics of a species, a hypothetical 'Species X', and whether those characteristics are important in choosing it as a flagship species. Characteristics were selected from traditional flagship criteria and the local criteria proposed by Bowen-Jones and Entwistle (2002). The four most important characteristics for respondents, both residents and NRM participants, were that the species be rare (65% of residents and 69% of NRM participants agreed), environmentally important (58%, 72%, p<0.05), unique (42%, 46%), and endemic (34%, 44%). Considered to be of less importance was that the species be well-known within the community (27%, 15%, p<0.05), harmless to humans (23%, 4%, p<0.05), enjoyable to observe (22%, 13%, p<0.05), intelligent (15%, 3%, p<0.05), provide useful services to humans (11%, 4%), require a small area for survival (11%, 4%), attractive (10%, 7%), a mammal (10%, 4%), easy to locate and observe (9%, 6%), carnivorous (2%, 0%), or large (2%, 1%).

Flagship impact on broader understanding of grasslands

Both residents and NRM participants who were previously aware of the plains-wanderer believed their knowledge of the species improved their understanding, appreciation, and interest in grassland ecosystems ([Table 1]). Over 70% of participants also said that after learning about the plains-wanderer, they would be interested in learning more about other grassland species.
Table 1: Resident and NRM participants' (Natural Resource Management professionals and volunteers) views on whether or not their awareness of the Plains-wanderer has led to them having a greater understanding of grassland ecosystems (residents n=122, NRM participants n=64)

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   Discussion Top

The purpose of this study was to examine whether the plains-wanderer, a species lacking traditional flagship characteristics, can fulfil this conservation role in the local context. Although a small sample of respondents was obtained, the results suggest that there is strong community support for, and awareness of, this cryptic and unusual species.

[Table 2] aligns the characteristics of the threatened plains-wanderer with local flagship criteria proposed by Bowen-Jones and Entwistle (2002). Clearly the plains-wanderer did not fulfil a number of the local flagship criteria, such as having a discrete and readily identifiable geographic range or ecological role. Although the species does not fit the traditional flagship model, our study suggests that the local community embraces the species and is willing to help conserve it. This supports findings by Smith and Sutton (2008) who demonstrated that there is a link between concern for a species and subsequent conservation intentions. Exposure to the flagship plays an important role in fostering a genuine concern for the species (Smith and Sutton 2008).
Table 2: Assessment of the plains-wanderers' characteristics against criteria for a local flagship species (as shown in Bowen-Jones and Entwistle 2002)

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As with similar studies, relatively low response rates from the community questionnaire cannot rule out a response bias in favour of residents with positive views toward the species under study. This is perhaps supported by the relatively low levels of agreement with statements such as “The plains-wanderer is well known within my community” or “... important within my community”. However, the results suggest that there is strong support for the species from at least 10% of the community. This is promising, given that the species lacks many traditional flagship traits (Home et al. 2009; Barua et al. 2011) and is generally regarded as being difficult to observe.

Our results suggest that the most important criteria for a local flagship, as expressed by NRM participants and residents, are that the species is endemic, unique, ecologically important, and rare. Respondents did not place high value on species being large, easily observed, carnivorous, attractive or mammalian. Thus, the ultimate success of a local flagship is dependent on the local community which lives alongside it (Barua et al. 2011). This even appears to be the case where some characteristics expressed by the community as being important (e.g. endemic, ecologically important) are not necessarily applicable to the species in question (see [Table 2]).

The decision to select a flagship species that does not fit the traditional flagship model contrasts with the conventional approach of selecting a species purely to obtain the 'wow' effect on the target audience. In the case of the NPG, this decision was taken out of necessity—there were no species of charismatic megafuana to choose from; indeed there were no species at all with the tried and tested attributes of a flagship. Such an approach has been successful in the past; for example, an indigenous tree was selected as a local flagship in preference to more traditional species like the jaguar (Panthera onca) for promoting conservation of forests in a Mayan community, South Belize (Bowen-Jones and Entwistle 2002). This selection was based on the strong affinity and associations the community held with the tree, strengthening their willingness to participate in conservation efforts. The local community held negative views of the potentially threatening jaguar and, despite it being an internationally favoured species, it was considered a dangerous local animal (Bowen-Jones and Entwistle 2002). This outcome emphasises the importance of selecting locally appropriate conservation flagships.

Despite lacking the traditional flagship criteria, the plains-wanderer appears to have been a successful flagship species for the conservation of the highly-threatened native grassland ecosystem of northern Victoria. This can be attributed to a campaign by land managers and conservation organisations to increase public awareness of this species over the past 25 years. Specifically, we believe that the following actions have helped to make the plains-wanderer a successful flagship:

  • A long running programme of voluntary acquisition of private property with high conservation values for nature reserves explicitly communicated that conservation of the plains-wanderer was a key objective.
  • A series of posters, stickers, and fact sheets featuring the plains-wanderer have been produced and made available to the community for the past 20 years.
  • Signage used to denote private properties involved in voluntary conservation initiatives features the name and image of the bird.
  • The bird's name has been adopted and/or adapted to be used as the name of local newsletters and at least one popular field guide to the grasslands of south-eastern Australia (Lunt et al. 1998).
  • The bird's name has been used as an inspiration to provide names to geographical locations within the region (e.g., Wanderer's Plain, a locality in northern Victoria within the species' distribution) (CFA 2000).
  • The local community is encouraged to attend open days at conservation reserves and to participate in ecological surveys for the plains-wanderer and other species.
  • Education about grassland fauna and conservation is featured at several local schools, and students are involved in production of artwork with a grassland conservation focus ([Figure 4]).
Figure 4: Artwork by students of the local primary school resulting from education campaigns to promote the plains-wandereras a flagship species (Photo: M. Antos)

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Thus, for a species to be an effective flagship, a range of factors need to come together, especially when the species lacks the traditional flagship criteria. The intended use or purpose of the flagship, a clearly defined audience, and an understanding of the attitudes and knowledge held by that audience are all important for a successful flagship (Barua et al. 2011).

While the plains-wanderer appears to be an effective flagship for the conservation of the NPG in Victoria, ongoing monitoring is critical to assess outcomes that can be directly attributed to flagship use (Barua et al. 2011). Will attitudes, awareness, and behaviours change further with ongoing promotion of the flagship? Further research is also required to ascertain its effectiveness in other states where it may be less well known or where there are heightened pressures to convert native pastures and grasslands to more lucrative land uses, such as irrigated cropping.

It can be concluded that the plains-wanderer can fulfil its role as a local flagship without addressing the traditional criteria of being a large, internationally recognised species. As a flagship, the plains-wanderer has stimulated conservation concerns beyond its own protection by raising awareness and concern for its grassland ecosystem, and has gained the interest of residents in learning about other local grassland species. The case study of the plains-wanderer successfully promoting a threatened ecosystem highlights the opportunity for adaptive management strategies to promote conservation on a community-based level and landscape-wide scale through the aid of local flagship criteria.

   Acknowledgements Top

Thanks to Ben Thomas, David Baker-Gabb, and Peter Morison for their support and assistance in research design and data collection, and to all the survey and interview participants without whom this study would not have been possible. Damon Oliver and two anonymous reviewers provided useful comments on the manuscript. We are grateful for the support of Deakin University's School of Life and Environmental Sciences for funding the research.[29]

   References Top

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Baker-Gabb, D.J. 1998. Native grasslands and the Plains-wanderer. Wingspan. Birds Australia conservation Statement No.11 (previously no.1). Australia: Birds Australia.  Back to cited text no. 3
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  [Figure 1], [Figure 2], [Figure 3], [Figure 4]

  [Table 1], [Table 2]


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