The US bald eagle is doing fine. The Central American tapir of Belize? Not so much.
Just about every country has a national animal, a symbol that is widely recognized and a source of pride, whether it’s the bald eagle (the national bird in the US), the beaver (in Canada), or the Central American tapir (that’s Belize).
Around the world, 35 per cent of the world’s symbolic national animals are threatened with extinction—and only 16 percent are receiving protection from their respective countries, according to a new paper from University of Miami researchers Austin Gallagher and Neil Hammerschlag.
In Canada, we’re lucky that our beavers are still plentiful. The US bald eagle is also safe, though it was once threatened with extinction. But the giraffe, the dugong, and the Central American tapir—which are national animals of Tanzania, Papua New Guinea and Belize, respectively— are all either vulnerable or threatened with extinction today, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Baird’s tapir at a zoo in Belize. Image: By Bernard DUPONT via Wikimedia Commons
Lead author Gallagher said that he and co-author Hammerschlag chose to look at national symbols specifically so people could connect with the research.
“This is clear and present in everyone’s life,” he said. “From the moment you hold your first dollar bill or coin, you’re going to see a national animal…It’s an incredibly powerful jumping-off point to get people to really understand what’s happening in their backyard.”
The dugong, a marine mammal. Image: Gejuni/Wikimedia Commons
Gallagher and Hammerschlag compiled research on the status level of different national animals from the IUCN Red List and synthesized it into their study, published in the journal BioScience. What became apparent was that national animal symbols in North America and Australia-Oceania are faring better than those found in African countries.
No matter how iconic they are, national animals are not more deserving of protection than other animal, said Hammerschlag. But protecting them could indirectly help others at risk as well.
Read More: ‘De-Extinction’ Is a Bad Idea Because We Can’t Even Take Care of What We’ve Got
“By conserving their habitats, you can have indirect support for other animals that live in the area,” Hammerschlag explained when I phoned him. Much of that is due to human impact on the environment, which could put other national animals at risk in the future.