Monday, November 23, 2015

Conservation’s toughest decision

Guest post by Shelby Hofstetter, currently enrolled in the Professional Masters of Environmental Science program at the University of Toronto-Scarborough

“We should have thrown in the towel years ago!”- the dinner-table conversation takes a drastic turn from gushing over new panda bear cubs at the Toronto Zoo to a more pessimistic view of the state of global panda conservation efforts. The speaker of these words is recalling a program that aired on the CBC when the pandas were first arriving at the Toronto Zoo. In it, host Amanda Lang acknowledged herself as a “panda hater” and expressed her disapproval of the money wasted on continued panda conservation efforts that are based solely on their appearance (link to video below). As someone who queued in line for the chance to take far too many pictures of the adorable bears, I blanch at some of Lang’s comments that pandas are “big and stupid“ and “want to be extinct”. But as a student of conservation, I recognise the underlying truth that we as a society have a bias for spending our conservation dollars on big, fluffy animals, regardless of their likelihood of survival.

(Photo taken by Shelby Hofstetter at the Toronto Zoo)

But what are the alternatives? With the realisation that funds for biodiversity conservation are finite, there has been a long history of debate over the best methods for choosing worthy species. The umbrella species concept seems to be the logical response to this conundrum – the classic 2 for 1 sale where conservation efforts for one species have the added bonus of protecting various other species that share the same ecosystem. This is the reason why some claim that the “big, fluffy” species are often highlighted in conservation projects, because the large, continuous tracts of land that are a necessity for their protection become a safe haven for many more.

The reality of the umbrella species concept may not be as simple however- there is some debate over how well it actually works. In some cases the large habitats required for the umbrella species do not overlap with biodiversity hotspots for other types of organisms like invertebrates, plants, amphibians or reptiles[1]. And unfortunately, even in cases where these pieces of habitat would provide protection for additional species, safeguarding the large amount of land necessary is often unrealistic[2].

Figure 1. Based on phylogenetic diversity, species A would be a higher conservation priority than species B or C as it has fewer close relatives that would be similar genetically[4]

Another response to this conservation riddle is aptly named the “Noah’s Ark Problem”, and is a framework for choosing species for conservation based on cost and likelihood of survival, but also on phylogenetic diversity[3]. This objective focus on phylogenetic diversity, or the amount of genetic history that a species contains, has gained momentum in recent years and is aimed at saving species that encapsulate high amounts of Earth’s evolutionary life history. The hope is that phylogenetic diversity is correlated with genetic diversity in general, which could also give these species a better chance of adapting to a changing planet[4].

Another notion that is becoming more prevalent is the consideration of ecosystem services, or the benefits that humans derive from a species or ecosystem, when planning for conservation projects. This concept is not necessarily centered around a specific species, but is more focused on the ecosystem as a whole. The emphasis on ecosystem services may help increase the perceived relevance of conservation projects, as the benefit to society is being highlighted. The uptake of this idea within global conservation efforts has been slow however, with less than 10% of conservation assessments including ecosystem services as part of their rationale for conservation[5]. There also seems to be a push for determining the corresponding economic and monetary value of the services that ecosystems provide to society. This is a science that, in a world focused on dollars and cents, may become very important to determining which species or areas are worthy of conservation efforts.

The jury is still out on how to best make conservation’s toughest decision-   determining which struggling species on this planet should be the lucky winners of our conservation resources. In the meantime the importance of this issue is becoming very clear, as many suggest that Earth is currently experiencing a sixth mass extinction. Smart and timely decision-making is vital for which species limited conservation efforts should be focused on. I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a “panda hater”, or suggest that we “throw in the towel” on conservation efforts for big fluffy species that may not be likely to recover, but I do agree that these decisions should go beyond visual appearances.
Additional Links:
link to Amanda Lang video:

1. Marris, E. (2013, December 24). Charismatic mammals can help guide conservation. Nature | News.
2. Fleishman, E., Blair, R., & Murphy, D. (2001). Empirical Validation Of A Method For Umbrella Species Selection. Ecological Applications, 11(5), 1489-1501.
3. Weitzman, M. (1998). The Noah's Ark Problem. Econometrica, 66(6), 1279-1298.
4. Owen, N. (2014). Life on the edge. Significance, 26-29.
5. Egoh, B., Rouget, M., Reyers, B., Knight, A., Cowling, R., Jaarsveld, A., & Welz, A. (2007). Integrating ecosystem services into conservation assessments: A review. Ecological Economics, 63(4), 714-721.

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