We are currently on the brink of a sixth mass extinction. Species naturally fluctuate over time, but this extinction is different. Plants and animals around the world are threatened by climate change, disease, habitat degradation and competition for resources with non-native species – all conditions exacerbated by the heavy human footprint on our planet. While we cannot completely prevent the ebb and flow of evolution, we can certainly deal with the impacts of our own actions.
As humans, we have established a tradition of focusing our conservation efforts on more aesthetically pleasing animals. There’s even a term for the phenomenon – “charismatic megafauna”, encompassing all the exciting “famous species” like pandas, whales, polar bears and elephants. Qualities such as human characteristics, warm blood, bright colors and even commercial viability can subconsciously influence our love for certain species and therefore our desire to save them.
We are known to do the same with commercially profitable species like bluefin tuna, honey bees, dolphins and whales. But where does that leave the bats, snakes, insects, spiders, rodents and sea filter feeders of the world?
Scientists have long argued that gifting to more attractive species creates an umbrella effect that adequately protects rather less charismatic species, but is our priority on aesthetics and profit to our own detriment? Focusing on flagship species is an effective way to segment areas of ecosystems as protected, but a holistic approach fails to adequately cover the individual needs of all flora and fauna.
We risk restructuring the natural function of terrestrial ecosystems through human aesthetic preferences. Our conservation strategies are non-biological in nature and do not take into account the complexity of interactions between habitats and species. Even if we succeed in protecting populations from various anthropogenic threats, failing to consider the entire food web can still lead to major trophic degradations.
According to a study led by Leah R. Gerber, professor of conservation science at Arizona State University, the amount of government funding available for species under the US Endangered Species Act is one of the best predictors of species recovery. However, according to the study, “public spending is both insufficient and grossly disproportionate across species groups.” This phenomenon is common all over the world and limited funds force scientists to place a monetary value on the conservation of particular species.
When it comes to funding, is it better to focus on particular species than not at all? One such approach by scientists is conservation triage. Prioritizing species to save may mean abandoning those that are too expensive to recover. Conversely, New Zealand is working on a project prioritization protocol that assesses the urgency of species’ status, how their conservation would help other taxonomic groups, and offers individualized conservation plans that even include cost estimates. This strategy has even increased government funding, as numerical estimates show what could be done with more allocated money.
PPP has proven that the ability to allocate funds more efficiently is possible – even with minimal funding, we can still create maximum science-informed impact. The EDGE of Existence conservation program offers another alternative to traditional financial decision-making, assessing species with the goal of preserving distinct evolutionary branches. While EDGE needs improvement – it currently only analyzes species that have been assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s very incomplete Red List – there is evidence that the commercialization of lesser-known wild species can actually lead to increased funding for its conservation.
Successful protection of endangered species requires a combination of funding, protected areas and specialized conservation strategies. Take, for example, the New Zealand kakapo, an endemic flightless parrot that has long been on the brink of extinction. Conservationists sparked public interest by making him the official “spokesperson” for New Zealand conservation, and he became the inspiration for the “party parrot” emoji, a staple of Daily Trojan Slack channels.
More importantly, scientists have used a variety of well-documented and specific strategies to encourage restocking – activity tracking, genome sequencing, artificial insemination and constant monitoring – in addition to defending traditional indigenous ecological knowledge. The individualized approach has resulted in years of record breeding and renewed public interest in the plight of the birds.
Despite this, there are still limits to what conservation can achieve. Reversing global biodiversity loss is counterintuitive to the pursuit of human industrialization and economic growth. Money can do a lot to create protected areas and programs to rehabilitate flora and fauna around the world, but we will soon reach a limit at which extinctions will far exceed our economic comprehension. Not to mention that in many cases we lack the core funding to identify the full extent of endangered species.
Our best bet moving forward is an ecosystem-based management approach – carefully considering costs and benefits beyond mere monetary terms, and employing well-researched, multi-pronged conservation strategies that consider impacts on the ecosystem as a whole. We all want to save koalas, but in doing so we must also look after the well-being of other natural components of their habitat, as well as effectively manage human interactions with the ecosystem. Despite the logistical fundraising challenges, we must make it a habit to extend our environmental savior complex beyond mere economic and aesthetic value. Species conservation is more than a charity project: it is a crucial element in ensuring the health of the planet for generations to come.
Montana Denton is a senior writer on environmental issues, sustainability and society. His column, “Triple Bottom Line,” airs every other Thursday.