Panda-ing To The Crowd

Why conservation efforts focus on a select few species

Presently, 23,000 species are at risk of extinction at mankind’s hands, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. While Earth is no stranger to vanishing wildlife, humans aren’t indifferent to the havoc they cause. Conservation tries to correct our mis-steppings as planetary stewards, but although conservationists will argue all species are equal in their eyes, closer inspection reveals some are more equal than others.

Only 8% of endangered species received more than $1 million (£690,000) of US conservation funds in 2012. Most saw far less; Holston river’s duskytail darter got about $100. One animal with disproportionate amounts diverted to its salvation are giant pandas. Sustaining a panda in captivity for half a year costs roughly $1.3 million (£900,000) for the average zoo. By comparison, all of New Zealand’s Maud Island Frogs could be saved for the same price based on Liana Joseph’s research in journal Conservation Biology . Pandas receive more money than the Javan rhino, whose numbers stand at a pitiful sixty (versus the panda’s 1864). Ditto more ecosystem critical species. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, a government agency, estimate mangroves support some 1300 species off the southern Florida coast. David Wildt, Head of the Department of Reproductive Sciences at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington DC, comments that no other species has such vast amounts committed to it. Why?

Simply put, “cute” and “charismatic” species attract the lion’s share of public support, donations and protection. It’s no accident the World Wildlife Fund chose pandas as their mascots. China would sooner divert railways than cut down bamboo forests, and films about lions and penguins are ubiquitous. Our willingness to protect animals based on their looks is well documented. One 2008 paper from Ecological Economics regarding python species, and another in PLOS ONE in 2013 looking at mammals, found zoo animal numbers correlated with the species perceived attractiveness (i.e. symmetrical faces, big wide set eyes, and child-like features). Robert Smith, writing in Conservation Letters, noted only 80 species; primarily large with forward facing eyes, were chosen as champions for conservation. “ Cuteness” also skews research foci. A 2002 study from Science found invertebrates, despite making 79% of Earth’s animals, made up 11% of conservation literature – a stark contrast to mammals, commanding 69% of papers, but comprising 3% of all creatures. Little has changed. In 2010, research published in Conservation Biology found scientific papers on large mammals eclipsed those of amphibians 500-fold. Some counter this conservation goes beyond symbolism. One study in Conservation Biology found large geographical regions designated for pandas also sheltered a large portion (~70%) of China’s endemic mammals and birds under their protective umbrella. However other studies find the evidence for trickle down conservation lacking. Robert Smith’s research pointed out that 61% of conservation campaigns raised funds solely for their symbolic species.

The end result is many creatures, not blessed with a charismatic face (or any), are ignored by conservation communities. Without time or money to save everything, conservationists m ust be pragmatic. As monumental a burden choosing species worth saving seems, it’s hardly unique. Medical professionals, from first responders to A&E doctors, prioritise patients based on the severity of their conditions daily. This triage approach could aid conservationists in allocating resources. For instance, conservation could focus resources on species truly on the brink. Alternatively, resources could be allocated to keystone species, upon which entire ecosystems depend. They could be stretched further still if conservation prioritised cheaper species with better chances of long term survival. Norman Myers, writing in Nature says that 24 biodiversity hotspots; containing 35% of all species and 44% of all vascular plants would be a silver bullet to cash strapped conservationists. The trade off, however, may be accepting a world without lions, tigers and bears. Oh my.

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