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Deciding Which Endangered Species to Save

Desperate times call for desperate conservation measures, like advocating eating rare birds or endorsing “survival of the cutest.”

The disappearing Dartmoor Hill Pony. Photo by Herbythyme via Wikimedia commons

This is not a good era to care about animals, unless you enjoy heartbreak. The latest count on California’s delta smelt, for instance, was a total of six fish, making it functionally extinct in the California Delta despite two decades under a recovery plan. Due to humanity’s actions, worldwide extinction rates are ballooning at such a quick clip that without some drastic reversal, this century will bring the sixth mass extinction in the history of the world. But there are also success stories amid all the death and sadness, as more energy and money pour into conservation efforts. Countries, organizations, and individuals are tuning in to the impending dangers of rapid biodiversity loss. Not all species can be saved from extinction, though, which leaves us in a multi-headed Sophie’s Choice of sorts: How do we pick which species to save?


It’s a hard question to ask, and an even harder one to answer. Conservation in the 19th century and before often depicted nature in utilitarian terms. During the Enlightenment, John Locke declared, “The earth and all that is therein is given to men for the support and comfort of their being.” The recent resurgence of the phrase “ecosystem services” in conservation circles, referring to benefits humans derive from a healthy ecosystem, is a sort of modern day iteration of this type of thinking. By considering clean water or other resources as “services,” the choice about saving species and conservation boils down to how it will benefit humans. But other approaches to biodiversity put stock in the value of a species in itself, the idea that the worth of any creature, plant, or ecosystem is inherent.

“I really, strongly believe that you need both [approaches],” said Benjamin Skolnik, coordinator for the Alliance on Zero Extinction (AZE) and a director in the international division at the American Bird Conservancy. “However, I do think the whole concept was born out of something more along the lines of the existential value of a species, that these threatened species have a right to live, and it doesn’t matter much whether there is some human use or economic value.”

The AZE is a coalition of 80 nonprofits in 30 countries, and they’ve taken on conservational choice in a way that seems largely concerned with, as Skolnik put it, “the existential value of a species,” along with a bit of an economic edge. They first sorted through the Red List, an inventory of endangered and critically endangered species compiled by the International Union of Conservation of Nature. They narrowed the metrics to locate those species that occupied only one remaining site left on the planet, with the idea that protecting the site—and the species therein—would be more cost effective than trying to protect a species across a wide range. This gets at two goals at once: protecting endangered ecosystems and endangered species. It also appeals to the most economic conservationists by showing the sites and species where your conservation dollars will get the most bang for their buck. The result was a list of 920 mammals, amphibians, reptiles, birds, coniferous plants, and reef-building corrals at 587 international sites, which means many endangered or critically endangered species overlapped, occupying the same area.

Ecuadorian pale-headed brush-finch. Image courtesy of Benjamin Skolnik

“If you’re looking at a list of priority species to save, those species that have remaining forest—if they’re forest dwelling species, for example—is going to be much cheaper than what we call ‘ex situ,’ in captivity, conservation efforts,” Skolnik said. “So if you have to recover natural ecological processes, through reforestation, for example, and you have to maintain a population ex situ, during the time when that ecology is recuperating—that’s going to add a big price tag to your project.”

A new study from an international group of scientists that pored over these species and sites estimates an entire species can be saved by spending $1.3 million per species per year. (This applies to 841 of the species on AZE’s list.) The authors of the study created a conservation index that prioritized the species with the highest potential to be saved, quantifying the possibility of successfully conserving a specific creature or plant. The annual amount, globally, to help ease these 841 species off the Red List would be $1.3 billion dollars, which is about as much as Michigan will spend this year repairing roads.

By taking the AZE’s approach and focusing on irreplaceable sites that contain more than one threatened species, some conservation groups have experienced recent success. The Fundación Jocotoco, along with ABC and the Rainforest Trust, rehabilitated the Ecuadorian pale-headed brush-finch from a few dozen individuals to around 250 in the last half decade, successfully changing its categorization from critically endangered to endangered. The size of the bird refuge, around 480 acres, contains the only living members of the species on Earth—and the rehabilitation, according to Skolnik, cost even less than the estimated $1.3 million.

In contrast, utilitarian-initiated efforts to save some species imperiled by overexploitation are often framed in the very terms that threaten them—continued exploitation. The utilitarian reason to conserve the species ends up being the same thing that drove it to the brink. Without a clear mission ideal, conflicts of interest and the reluctance to interrupt economic activity often stall out these attempts. Tuna is a good example of this. Five out of eight species of tuna are at risk of extinction. Since 1950, when the market first exploded in the United States and Japan, overfishing has pushed the Bluefin tuna onto IUCN’s Red List. Estimates vary, but their population is down as much as 96.4 percent compared to pre-overfished levels (other numbers put the figure much lower, with population declines at most around 50 percent).

Though the United States relies on the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, to set yearly levels at which the fish is allowed to be extracted, the US Fisheries Services hasn’t listed any tuna with Endangered Species Act protections. In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill coated the Bluefin tuna’s spawning ground in the Gulf of Mexico in crude oil, and led to a national petition to get the species listed as endangered. Despite the threat to the tuna’s survival, in 2011 the Obama administration declined to list it. “The Obama administration is kowtowing to the fears of the U.S. fishing industry instead of following the science on this,” Kieran Suckling, the Center for Biological Diversity’s executive director told The New York Times at the time. That, and pressure from Japan, where the fish is sold in markets for thousands of dollars, effectively kept Bluefin tuna from endangered classification.

Bluefin Tuna. Image by OpenCage via Wikimedia Commons

But despite examples like the tuna, more than one group argues that eating endangered animals is a legitimate conservation choice, from the British Dartmoor hill pony to New Zealand’s rare and scrumptious weka bird. “No species that have ever been farmed have ever died out,” Roger Beattie, a “wildlife magnate” in New Zealand, argued. Many conservationists also bank on a species’ “cuteness,” which can backfire if there is an especially ugly animal facing down the barrel of oblivion. These suggestions are obviously weighted on the utilitarian end of conservation practices, the idea being that a regulated market will sustain a species ad infinitum.

As we discover more global biodiversity, and really assess it well, the future number of highly threatened species will in all likelihood inflate—along with the price tag for saving them. Running the conservation rigmarole requires taking a “by any means necessary” approach, arguing for cuteness, deliciousness, and any human-derived benefits that will help stave off an animal’s extinction. However, many species face serious habitat loss, and the value of their integration into complex ecosystems might not be immediately apparent. Many of them don’t make for good eating, and aren’t adorable. In the long term, the continued existence of these species ultimately requires the opposite of a utilitarian mindset, one in which we truly value nonhuman creatures for no other reason than that they exist.

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