Flagship species are charismatic species that serve as a symbol and rallying point to stimulate conservation awareness and action but are often used synonymously as de facto umbrella species to delineate reserve boundaries. We tested the extent to which the presence of a flagship species would protect other ‘background species’ at the local scale at which practical decisions about small reserves are often made. Using long term sightings, we identified four 1 km2 sites that are frequently visited by jaguars and by tapirs (flagship species), and by white-lipped peccaries and spider monkeys (non-flagship species) in neotropical rainforest in Belize. We then made inventories of five vertebrate taxonomic groups at each site. We found no consistent differences in species richness or abundances of frogs, phyllostomid bats, terrestrial mammals, scansorial mammals or birds across the four sites, except that frog diversity and abundance was higher close to a river at the flagship site where tapirs were found. Since these classic Latin American flagship species fail to encompass particularly high numbers or abundances of vertebrate species at a local scale, they appear to be a poor conservation tool when co-opted as umbrella species for delineating the location of very small reserves in the neotropics.