Wolfgang Wüster is a Senior Lecturer in Herpetology at Bangor University, UK. He has broad interests in the systematics ecology, evolution and biogeography of venomous snakes, and in the evolution of snake venoms. He has described a number of new species of snakes, with a special focus on cobras, and contributed to unravelling the question of the origin of snake venoms, and the factors affecting the evolution of venom composition. He has a particular interest in relating the findings of this world to the problems of snakebite and its prevention and treatment.
Venomous snakes as flagship species: identifying likely candidates
Flagship species in conservation are intended to act as ambassadors for their habitats and other species occupying them, to attract funding for conservation, or act as magnets for ecotourist dollars. Flagship species are normally iconic species that are popular with a significant proportion of the public, who are prepared to dedicate resources to their protection. As significant causes of mortality and morbidity, especially in the rural tropics, venomous snakes do not naturally fall into this category. However, over the last two decades, an increasing positive interest in herpetology in general and venomous snakes has opened up the potential for a role of flagship species. Due to their much smaller habitat ranges, reptiles can potentially act as umbrella species for much smaller, yet nevertheless conservation-relevant habitat fragments than the mammalian megafauna usually serving as flagship species.
In this presentation, I discuss the kinds of scenarios in which venomous snakes might act as flagship species. Ideal scenarios include situations where internationally known, iconic species cause few accidents, occur in intact environments, yet can be found with suitable local help, or where entire faunas are attractive to ecotourists. For venomous snakes to fulfil their role as umbrella species protecting the wider environment, local people must derive perceptible benefits from the presence of the snakes. In turn, herpeto-tourists should ensure that local people are aware of the reason for the visits, and the additional income they derive as a result. While venomous snake tourism is clearly a real phenomenon in some parts of the world, there has been no rigorous quantification of its economic benefits and impact on social attitudes. There is a clear need for research into the economic potential of venomous snake-based tourism, the identification of species and locations where this is practical against the background of local customs and legislation, and its potential for changing negative attitudes towards venomous snakes.