Rethinking Extinction

Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, 3 years before he passed away, rendering the species functionally extinct. But should species like this be the focus of our conservation efforts?

Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, 3 years before he passed away, rendering the species functionally extinct. But should species like this be the focus of our conservation efforts? (Image Credit: Make it Kenya, CC0 Creative Commons)

Last year saw the death of Sudan, the last known northern white rhinoceros in the world. The story went viral, with the usual bemoaning of the way humans treat our planet, followed shortly by the normal rush back into anonymity for the world’s biodiversity. We are currently part of the most dramatic mass extinction event that the planet has ever seen, and more of these stories crop up every year. But is it a problem that the alarm bells are only raised when a creature hits the critically endangered level? Do we need to start paying more attention to population declines before hey hit such low numbers? And how do we even prioritise conservation efforts?

The plights which capture the world’s pity when it comes to endangered species generally follow the same pattern. They’re a charismatic, interesting animal, and their numbers are at a level whereby we can empathise with their scarcity. Think of the case of Sumatra’s orangutans (less than 10,000 individuals left), or the Siberian Tigers (300 individuals left). These are species that are on the brink of extinction, which could come even sooner than the public can anticipate. A species does not have to die out completely to be functionally extinct – it is possible that species can reach such low numbers that any breeding effort results in a gene pool insufficient to sustain a population.

It goes without saying that species like these require huge efforts to resuscitate. Valuable resources that could be better spent buying back land to expand protected areas or to reeducate and provide alternative employment for poachers is suddenly redirected to the conservation of a few species. It’s a high input, low return situation which could have been prevented had we not waited until populations hit a level that incited alarm.

So how to we stop these situations from happening, and focus more on ensuring that populations don’t reach critical levels? One method is to start taking population decline into account. Advances in population modelling have made it possible to forecast fluctuations in populations. By taking into account factors like habitat loss and climate warming, we can highlight species in danger of extinction within certain time frames. A bevy of recent studies have highlighted biodiversity hotspots throughout the world in which a high percentage of species have started to decrease in abundance. So a shift away from focusing on key species (as highlighted in last week’s excellent post by Lara Veylit) and towards preserving entire ecosystems would be a good start.

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The jungles of Sumatra may play host to endangered species of orangutan, but should we be marketing them as such to the public, or as the diverse engine rooms of the world that they are? (Image Credit: Ilya Yakubovich, CC BY 2.0)

The onus here will be on the scientific public to promote the value of an entire ecosystem and its role in supporting life, as opposed to a few key species that humans empathize with. I would argue that it’s harder to incite interest in an ecosystem’s ability to house a thousand insect species as a food source for charismatic birds and mammals, rather than incite interest in the role that those thousand insect species play in nutrient cycling. We’ve seen this already, with Planet Earth a great example. Attenborough’s documentary focused on biomes rather than individual species, and the roles they play in maintaining the planet’s biodiversity.

But how does humanity then decide which areas deserve most attention? Unfortunately I don’t have an answer here. If coming to a definition of biodiversity is a mountain, coming to a decision on where biodiversity is most at risk is surely the Himalayas (though probably not literally – no one wants to resuscitate the yeti populations). Should we prioritise species whose abundances are declining fastest? Or those who are closest to a critical level? Do we prioritise areas where a majority of species are in slow declines, or where a few species are in a sharp decline?

Though I don’t have an answer to these questions, I believe they are the sorts of questions that should be raised by the general public, not just by scientists. Instead of “how do we save koalas”, it should be a matter of “which koala ecosystems can sustain the most diversity”. Instead of “why are orangutans going extinct”, it should be “which species will be in the same situation in ten years?”. They’re ethical questions, which mean that provided the information they receive is accurate, the public is just as qualified to contribute to the debate as the scientific public are.

So get involved. Whether you’re a lover of animals or not, biodiversity is key to keeping humans from being on the endangered species list. To do this, we need to stop focusing on creatures like Sudan, and start helping the habitats that house species that will be facing his plight in the near future.

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