Conservation: Are we prioritising marketable animals?

Why are you more likely to make a donation to help panda Bei Bei than to save a sandworm population?

Writer and Artist: Patrick Marenda
Editor: Chelsea Tripp

Not every species can be saved. This is a sad reality of conservation, which raises the question: who should be saved? And what can we afford to lose? How can we categorise between the two? Are we as humans not taking too much control in giving ourselves the right to choose what animals to save and which to let die? This becomes then not just an ecological but a deeply ethical question.

Let’s take a look at the wildlife page of the WWF. Out of 18 entries, only 3 are non-mammals (the sea turtle, the emperor penguin and the adelie penguin), and not a single invertebrate is in sight. Our anthropocentrism hides the majority of life’s diversity and leads us to prioritise animals which are similar to us, meaning vertebrates and specifically mammals. This is especially true if they are cute, furry and are present in children books, zoo promotions and souvenir shops. A wonderful illustration is the logo of the WWF, in which a giant panda is promoting the safeguarding of worldwide wildlife.  

The promotion of a few dozen highly popular, mostly mammalian and almost exclusively vertebrate animals may mislead us to underestimate the number and diversity of global wildlife. On the other hand, it seems true that most people are more willing to donate to save charismatic and human-like species such as apes or lions. One can think here of the ‘Big Five’ in South Africa, which are the ones that attract tourists, visitors and with them financial benefits. As humans, we are more likely to have compassion with a named individual than with a whole species or even an ecosystem. 

This bias starts in childhood, indeed many children will prefer cute or strong animals over their small, un-charismatic counterparts. In an effort to raise support for such species, like mussels, outreach specialists often try to make them appealing through comics and stories in which those animals become superheroes with their own superpowers. When people know and like a character, they can muster enthusiasm for the species it represents in the real world, which they would have previously ignored at best. 

It is often said that the protection of more popular animals can contribute to saving other less well-known species sharing their habitat. While it is likely that by protecting rhinoceroses who need a very large area, one also helps to protect other less iconic species, this isn’t always true. For example, the establishment of panda sanctuaries in the mountains of west Sichuan has also helped to save many other species in this landscape, but some species such as leopard, snow leopard, wolf and asian wild dog have almost disappeared. While snow leopards can still raise money on their own, other species do not have this advantage. Indeed for such charisma-challenged species, conservation projects are often led by smaller organisations. Zoos are also a crucial actor, as they often offer shelter and love to these lesser-known animals, and the people working for zoo administrations are keen to help in the conservation effort.

Prioritising the conservation effort on highly diverse and unique ecosystems, and within them keystone and umbrella species, is a step towards maximising the amount of biodiversity saved. Indeed with dangers such as massive deforestation and wildfires progressively eroding habitats, it is even more important to prioritise the safeguarding of the biodiversity of our Earth. In this perspective, focusing on biodiversity hotspots could help to protect 35% of all vertebrate species, conserving 1.4% of the Earth surface. These biodiversity hotspots contain a remarkably high concentration of biodiversity with many unique species. It remains to be seen where finances should be deployed in order to have the best chances of saving the most biodiversity. Scientist Hugh Possingham has developed an algorithm which tries to calculate the best trade-off, measuring real-world costs against the number of species saved. While improving year by year, it is still difficult to put numbers on many factors implicated in the success of a conservation campaign. 

This should be the place where I tell you that while the future may look pretty bad, we can save the world through our good intentions and the power of friendship. But this type of ending does not seem fitting anymore. Although biodiversity is dying away, hopefully we can save a certain amount of it, if we are careful and smart about it. So, I hope that after reading this you are not too discouraged and still want to help save Earth’s biodiversity, be it through donating to large non-governmental organisations and their cast of superstars, or maybe to a smaller initiative or a zoo, in the protection and conservation of a lesser-known species. 

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