Which Species Are Worth Saving?
By Lisa Barrett
We are in the wake of a sixth mass extinction due to human activity (hunting, habitat degradation, etc.) and climate change. Humans not only put species in danger of becoming extinct in the first place, but we also decide which species “deserve” to be saved. While some endangered species enjoy population revivals, others do not make the cut. After all, with over 5,000 species listed as endangered (and likely more on which we do not have sufficient data), there will always be some that get overlooked. Conservationists must attempt to prioritize and compare species that are approaching extinction.
This sort of “conservation triage” is difficult to consider, but it is nonetheless important in directing funds and resources to conservation efforts. In fact, these types of decisions depend on a multitude of complex factors, some of which are location-specific (What is valuable in the economy? What does the local culture emphasize? What types of research does the government fund?). The World Wildife Fund, for example, prioritizes conservation of endangered species that are important for their ecosystem (e.g. keystone species) or for people (e.g. the animal has cultural significance) over species that may not have such an important role. In this blog I will cover just a few of the factors that go into this decision. So, what are some reasons for saving a particular species over another?
The Ones We Like
Would you donate money to save a giant panda or a frog? An elephant or a spider? An orangutan or a crab? Most people would vote to aid a “cuter” animal. This type of taxonomic bias sometimes influences scientists’ decisions about which species to save. In part, it may be easier to fund research on a more popular species, such as a charismatic panda cub over a frog. No wonder the World Wildlife Fund chose a panda as its logo!
The World Wildlife Fund’s logo.
On the other hand, allocating funds to conserve an animal that is further up the food chain or an important keystone species with wide-reaching effects on the environment means protecting a larger habitat (which usually contains several smaller creatures; learn about umbrella species here). Focusing media attention on charismatic megafauna also makes it easier to get important conservation messages out to the public, which may be something as simple as “don’t litter.” Bigger, popular creatures may be easier to relate to.
But do not fret! At least one organization specializes in drawing attention to the ugliest, endangered animals, such as the pig-nosed frog and the blobfish (Ugly Animal Preservation Society: http://uglyanimalsoc.com/).
Here, you can take a survey about which species you would help save: http://www.geospatial-services.com/survey/conservation_survey.html
Those We Killed
Ironically, it is rare that we hear of conservation plans designed to save a species out of genuine concern that future generations may not have an opportunity to see the animals live in the wild. Although some people realize that we are destroying the environment, few turn that sense of guilt into taking meaningful steps to be more eco-friendly.
Interestingly, our guilt may trigger action previously only related to science-fiction. Today we are mourning the loss of some incredible species, such as the dodo bird. As if almost to show our intense regret about these extinctions, scientists are trying to bring back some species (de-extinction). For example, researchers may now have enough preserved blood and bone material to clone the woolly mammoth and the passenger pigeon. But while we may feel badly about our habitat-destroying behavior, this sentiment may not be enough to avoid the daily extinction of species.
Mammoth remains used for a de-extinction project.
The Most Economical
The harsh reality is that it is nearly impossible to convince donors to invest in the protection of a species simply for its continued existence or inherent worth. Conservation requires minds and strategies that are business savvy. You must convince a donor to support you while ensuring that they will receive something in return. Perhaps most influential is the argument that protecting a species should be an economical endeavor.
As some argue, not only must it be worth investing money in a conservation method because it will save X number of animals, but because it must also have economic benefits for the public. In other words, if the loss of the species will result in economic repercussions for the majority, the public will be more likely to support its rescue. As in most things, money always wins.
For example, raising salmon in the United States to the same high-profile status as wolves and grizzly bears (despite its relatively non-serious conservation status) was not accidental. An increasing western taste for salmon and a decline in salmon numbers may be a driving factor for the intense buzz around their conservation. Might one argue that the effect of losing salmon would be greater than the benefits of saving endangered turtles that are not so regularly enjoyed by the American palate?
Some conservationists uphold that money could be better spent on less critically-endangered species that have a higher chance of actually surviving. Interestingly, there is a mathematical model that helps to determine the cost-effectiveness of saving a species and the likelihood that it can avoid extinction. Others add that conservationists should realize that some species cannot be saved no matter how much money is put toward them.
Here, you can practice prioritizing species that should be saved: http://www.sesync.org/sites/default/files/resources/case_studies/1-prioritizing-endangered-species-conservation-pt2.pdf
Endangered species around the world.
At Least We Tried
While none of these considerations are mutually exclusive, it is interesting to ponder them as more and more species go extinct each day. You may be left wondering: at the end of the day, is it better to say, “At least we tried!” or to say, “We didn’t waste a single dollar!” on a conservation campaign for any endangered species? Perhaps some are more “worth it” than others.
Click below to see the most endangered species in the world: