In A New Age of Extinction, We Need to Change How We Decide to Save Species

65 million years ago, an asteroid smashed into the earth, wiping out the dinosaurs and almost obliterating all life on the planet. Life on Earth has endured five of these extinction events, known as the Big Five mass extinctions. Evidence now suggests we are entering a sixth mass extinction, and humans are the cause.

Agriculture, hunting, overfishing, pollution, ocean acidification, and climate change—driven by human overpopulation and reckless consumption of resources—are destroying habitats and decimating biodiversity. Scientists estimate that current rates of extinction are 100 times to 1000 times higher than the pre-human background extinction rate. Big fish stocks in the ocean have fallen 90% since 1950, and the Pacific Bluefin tuna is now on the brink of extinction with just 3% left of its pre-human population size.

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A Chilean purse seiner hauls in 400 tons of mackerel jack. Photo by C. Ortiz Rojas.

As the drivers of this devastation, we are morally obligated to save as many species as we can. Yet with thousands of species in danger of extinction, we have to admit that we can’t save them all. So how do we decide which species to save?

The way we go about species conservation in the United States now is a haphazard mix of economics, science, and emotion. We can use models to analyze the return that would result from investing money in protecting, say, the Bluefin tuna. We can focus on saving rare, unique species in order to maintain diverse gene pools—the mission of the EDGE of Existence program. We can protect biodiversity hotspots, like coral reefs, to preserve diverse and resilient ecosystems. We can prioritize keystone species that have cascading ecosystem effects or focus on the ecosystem services that species provide to humans.

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Coral reefs are often targeted by ecosystem management approaches because they provide habitat for a diverse array of species and provide valuable ecosystem services to humans.

What we typically end up doing, though, is simply choosing species we like.

What species come to mind when you think of endangered species conservation? Pandas, tigers, whales, polar bears, orangutans? What do these animals all have in common? First, they’re all large mammals. It’s easier for us to relate to an ape than a snake or a fish. They have a face and eyes, through which we feel we can see the soul of an animal. These animals have been dubbed “charismatic megafauna”—large animals with universal appeal.

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It’s easy to be charmed by charismatic megafauna like cute, cuddly pandas.

African Penguins are another darling of the conservation movement. They are one of 10 species on the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Save Animals from Extinction (AZA SAFE) Signature Species list. Penguins are undoubtedly loveable, as shown by the popularity of Happy Feet, March of the Penguins, and penguin exhibits at zoos and aquariums. Why are penguins such charming conservation ambassadors? Is it their upright waddle? Their suit-like coloration? The fact that they mate for life? Perhaps we adore penguins because we see human qualities in them.

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The endangered African Penguin is a favorite of visitors at zoos and aquariums.

We have a bias for cute, fuzzy animals—animals that we can easily anthropomorphize, or project human traits onto. It’s not that anthropomorphizing animals is always wrong, because it’s often the best way to begin to understand the experience of other animals. It’s just that our empathy for other species doesn’t extend far enough. In fact, our obsession with a few famous species may be detrimental to the conservation of less charismatic but possibly more ecologically valuable species.

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The critically endangered Panamanian golden frog may be extinct in the wild. Amphibians are going extinct at an alarming rate. Photo by Brian Gratwicke.

Nearly one-third of assessed amphibian species, for example, are already extinct or endangered. The rate of extinction for these animals is between 25,039 and 45,474 times the background extinction rate due to the deadly Chytrid fungus, pollution, and habitat destruction. Although amphibians play a vital role in the food chain, consume insect pests, and are valuable environmental indicators, endangered amphibians only receive a fraction of the attention—and funding—garnered by more popular species like the tiger or the vaquita.

The vaquita has recently become a conservation celebrity as the most endangered cetacean in the world. The tiny porpoises, endemic to the Gulf of California, are rapidly approaching extinction because they are caught as bycatch in gillnets aimed at catching the totoaba, another critically endangered species whose swim bladders command astronomical prices in China for their supposed medicinal benefits.  After recent estimates placed the vaquita’s population at less than 30 individuals, the Mexican government recruited the U.S. Navy to deploy trained dolphins to locate the remaining vaquitas, which will then be placed in protected sea pens so they can survive and hopefully reproduce out of harm’s way.

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A dead vaquita is entangled in a gill net set for totoaba. Photo by Omar Vidal.

The problem with this plan is that we know so little about the elusive vaquita that there is no guarantee that they will survive in captivity. Devoting resources to this last-ditch effort will not address the cause of the problem—illegal fishing for the endangered animal trade—and could divert attention and funds away from potential solutions to the problem, like increased enforcement of illegal fishing. Clearly, though, current policies are not working fast enough, and this might be the only way to save the vaquita from certain extinction. But is the cost and effort justified when the outcome is so uncertain? Why are we so determined to save this animal, when so many others are at risk? Would the resources be better spent on species we know we can save?

If we are to make the most of conservation efforts, we desperately need a more rational and holistic decision-making approach. The Project Prioritization Protocol from the University of Queensland in Australia includes not just a species’ value, threats, and cost of management, but the probability that the proposed management will succeed. Allocating conservation funding to the most cost-effective and least risky projects allows a greater number of species to be successfully managed. This is the kind of tool we should be using to maximize our conservation impact in the United States.

Although our obsession with “charismatic megafauna” leaves many important species out of the mainstream conservation dialogue, we should continue to use the appeal of these animals to advance the conservation movement as a whole. “Celebrity species” help to educate the public about environmental issues that affect entire ecosystems and raise funds that can then go toward the conservation of species that are in greater need.

Moving forward, however, we must examine the cognitive dissonance that leads us to care about some species and not others. Saving penguins and vaquitas won’t solve the world’s problems—we also need to save species that have the most conservation value based on scientific evidence, even if they are not cute and cuddly. It’s time to accept that we must make difficult and painful decisions to save species from extinction. If we make these decisions based on the best science and tools available, at least we can be sure that we are doing our best to save as many as possible.

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