Tuesday, April 1, 2014

How to Become Un-Endangered (Part 2 of 3)

by Lisa Barrett

Part two of my three-part series on how to become un-endangered will address how some species gain population revivals, while others do not make the cut. You may recall from part one of this series that humans not only put animals in danger of becoming extinct in the first place (read part one here), but we also decide which species “deserve” to be saved. 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 need some way to efficiently prioritize and compare species approaching extinction. This sort of “conservation triage” is difficult to consider, but it is nonetheless important in directing funds and resources to conservation efforts.
Keep in mind that 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?
According to a poll by ARKive, the tiger is the world's favorite animal.

Part 2: Which Species Are "Worth" Saving?

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!

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” (learn about the media’s influence on conservation here). 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/).

The blobfish may be one of the world's ugliest animals. 

Here, you can take a survey about which species you would help save: http://www.geospatial-services.com/survey/conservation_survey.html

The Ones 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.

What motivated humans to investigate cloning the woolly mammoth?
Photo by: Aaron Tam/Getty

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 endangered species get more recognition than others. Do these sound familiar?
Photo by: kidsplanet.org

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.
At Least We Tried

While none of these reasons are mutually exclusive, it is interesting to consider 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.

This anti-poaching campaign reads: Protect the pandas of Africa- elephants. When the buying stops the killing can too. 
Image by: WildAid

In the final part of this blog series, we will look at Asian elephants as a case study for how conservation efforts have failed and succeeded in conserving a charismatic, yet endangered species. We will also make predictions about their outcome as a declining species, and how Think Elephants is working to prevent this foreboding future. 


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