According to an article in this morning's Independent, "A majority of professional conservationists believe it is time to consider shifting efforts away from some of the world's most famous species, such as the panda, to concentrate on others which have a greater chance of success."
Should we be more selective in our efforts? What animals should we choose? By what measure will we evaluate which lives and which dies out?
Mammals most at risk of being abandoned if such an approach was to be adopted include the following:
- Rhinoceroses - main threat is poaching for their horn which can be worth more than their weight in gold in east Asia where the ground horn is incorrectly attributed with medicinal properties;
- Pandas - main threats are habitat loss due to large human populations and low fertility levels;
- Polar bears - main threat is habitat loss due to climate change;
- Tigers - main threats are habitat loss and fragmentation due to growing human populations and hunting;
- Gorillas - main threats are poaching and habitat loss;
- Orangutans - main threat is habitat loss due to forest clearance for palm oil plantaions.
A brief look at the main threats to these animals and it is clear that, with the exception of polar bears, they are all human threats that could be managed locally by protecting habitats. Is it too much to ask people to stop killing rhinos for horn? After all:
"@EcoWarriorMe #Rhino horn does NOT cure cancer. It is NOT an aphrodisiac. It has no real use for anyone other than its original owner - the rhino."
The same applies to tigers and bush meat from gorillas. We can decline to buy products with palm oil to reduce demand for new plantations.
Pandas appear to be more difficult. As the poster child of the WWF there has been a concerted, decades long effort to conserve pandas with only limited success. Should we let go of them first?
And the most difficult of all is the polar bear. Climate change is having the greatest effect on its habitat. Some species move north as the climate warms but the polar bear has nowhere left to go. If all human greenhouse gas emissions stopped tomorrow the arctic temperature will continue to rise for years to come. Perhaps then we should leave polar bears to die out, unless they themselves can adapt to warmer conditions with less sea ice.
Local efforts to protect habitats of these large mammals, with the exception of the polar bear, will also protect the habitats of many other creatures. Not all of the mammals listed are at the top of the food chain or in a key position within it but they do give an indication of the health of an area. A large cohesive habitat which is sufficient for tigers will support many other animals, giving them sufficiently large gene pools to allow healthy breeding and continued evolution.
So to answer my first two questions, I think that we need to look at the health and protection of habitats as a whole in order to sustain the larger creatures but that we shouldn't be writing of branch of the tree of life. Once they are gone, they are gone - there are no second chances. With this answer, I shouldn't need to answer the third. Especially as it is so difficult. It is emotive, subjective and unquantifiable. We can not asign monetary value as they have none: they are not used (legitimately) to make any sell-able product except, tangentially, tourism.
We do need to tread lightly with all 14bn feet, play good and share what little space we have.