Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Conservation priorities

Here are some facts that conservation biologists don't like to hear:
  1. Conservation money is limited. Conservation effort is also limited.
  2. There are many species in need of conservation.
  3. The number of species in need of conservation is likely to grow.
And I'll add on one fact that I don't think any conservation biologist would disagree with:
  1. Some species are harder to conserve than others.
Given these four basic premises, one conclusion pops out: we need to be selective in what we attempt to conserve, so to maximize the number of species we can conserve. It also means we shouldn't be wasting money on things that don't contribute significantly to conservation, like banning Canadian Polar Bear rugs, or wasting enforcement money chasing down native subsistence users who hunt polar bears through a ban (luckily, that one would be politically untenable).

Some species are challenging to conserve for space issues - try keeping a Grey Whale in captivity for captive breeding! Others are difficult for husbandry issues, like the Shanghai soft-shell turtle where the only male in China once attacked a female instead of mating. And ask the Black Footed Ferrets what re-discovery did to their numbers - I once heard a colleague describe the worst thing that happened to the Black Footed Ferret as being "Scientists discovered they weren't extinct yet."

The idea that we should maximize our bang-for-our-buck in conservation is a very unpopular one, though one that more scientists are coming around to. Recently, this argument poked its head up in the main stream media when a prominent scientist advocated just letting the Giant Panda go extinct. MSNBC downplays his comments through a rebuttal from another scientist - and would have thought the WWF, an organization that uses a Giant Panda as their logo, would oppose it?

Mr Packham is probably more in the right, here. The problem is that the Giant Panda is too much of a specialist, and its habitat is disappearing, and likely can't be re-created. Even if we stabilized their numbers at their current levels, they're (and would always be) highly vulnerable to chance events - like the introduction of a new disease, or a dry year. But from a public relations point of view, it would be un-reasonable to let the Panda go quietly into the night. People like bears (so long as they don't have to live with the). They're willing to shell out millions of dollars to see even a small return on their investment. Practically speaking, not the best course of action. But the one we're apparently taking, none the less.


gpc said...

What would the bang-for-buck species be? Any cute enough for a marketing campaign? That's what turned the tide (so to speak) for whales and turtles and manatees.

TwoYaks said...

Hmm... Cute things....

Wolves in the lower 48 have great conservation potential... in western US. For more endangered species, I would say the Arabian Oryx. Desert bighorn, too. Gunnison's Sagegrouse, for birds.

Lemurs have some good conservation potential if Madagascar stabilizes politically. Which is about as likely 70°F weather in January in Fairbanks.

gpc said...

Nice picks -- of course I had to look them up (except for the bighorn and the wolf) but they are definitely cute. My family and I saw a desert bighorn (or what the ranger said was a desert bighorn) from far, far away on one of our trips out west when I was a little girl. Even then, lo those many years ago, it was a big deal to see them.

2012天氣晴朗 said...