Weeks ago, new research uncovered that “the most deadly pathogen known to science” has, conservatively, caused the decline of over 500 amphibian species, of which 90 are presumed to have gone extinct in the past 50 years.
Now considered a ‘chic’ and celebrity species, the vaquita porpoise, known in Spanish as the ‘little cow’ of the Sea of Cortez, is also vanishing. Classified as the most endangered marine mammal on the planet, half of all vaquitas were lost in 2015 and 2016, with just ten estimated to remain today.
Cautionary tales of lightning-fast, human-induced wildlife decline are frighteningly ubiquitous and increasingly symptomatic of a fissure in the global conservation paradigm, specifically the ways in which species are prioritized, receive funding and garner international awareness due to how close they sit to the precipice of extinction. The architecture of the current conservation funding structure is in need of an overhaul to allow greater distribution of resources across all species, regardless of their conservation status, in order to strategically and wisely allocate the life-saving dollars bestowed upon the environmental community.
Since its evolution in 1964, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species has been considered the globally recognized authority on the conservation status of animal and plant species, ranking them from ‘Not Evaluated’ to ‘Extinct’. This ‘Barometer of Life’ very much guides the global barometer of conservation funding, with the most threatened species on one end of the scale receiving the vast majority of dollars ($211.8 million this year from the Endangered Species Act alone), while the species that are more common, at least for now, receive far less.
The Canadian lynx, which is commercially hunted in North America, and the bobcat, considered ‘vermin’ in states like Texas where hunting is permitted 24/7/365, are two species on one end of the scale where protective policy is all but absent. Investment per species at this level is minor and options for conservation actions abundant.
Ranging from Mexico to Argentina, the jaguar is another species around which conservation efforts are still wide-ranging and beneficial for both people and biodiversity, including innovative carbon bond partnerships with multinational energy companies, prevention of jaguar-livestock conflict by breeding territorial bulls and investment in sustainable land developments.
Without early interventions like these, species once of “least concern” quickly find themselves on the heavy end of the scale, in triage mode. These are the ‘bleeders,’ the ‘living dead’ and the ‘last of the lasts’ – those highly threatened species around which the public and the entire conservation community rally. Investment per species at this level is exorbitantly high and conservation actions are both limited and labor-intensive.
Strict law enforcement and landscape lock ups are some of the limited tools of the triage trade. In Asia, the average cost of protecting and monitoring the last remaining 3,900 tigers in 42 source sites runs $82 million per year, a figure which, scientists say, requires an additional annual $35 million to truly save the species.
‘Sudan,’ the last male northern white rhino who passed a year ago in Kenya, had a dedicated team of caretakers, armed guard protection, and a Tinder account to fund the development of rhino IVF, an untested and radically new procedure (potentially requiring a horse surrogate) costing as much as $10 million.
Understanding that an unfettered African wilderness is more fantasy than reality, some conservationists advocate for fencing as a last-resort to save Africa’s remaining 20,000 wild lions. Fencing just one of Tanzania’s priority lion conservation areas – the Selous Game Reserve – however, would cost $30 million, with an annual $22 million maintenance tab.
Procrastination has a hefty price tag, both in what we stand to lose financially and intrinsically for our planet. While species protection is costly, recovery of the survivors is exponentially greater. By and large, it is more cost effective to invest early and proactively to prevent species from falling into the dreaded endangered zone than reactively planning strategy when the end is nigh.
Balancing the species protection funding scale requires new exploration and research to gain a greater understanding of the status of all species, such as the flat headed cat and Bornean bay cat, for which even basic population sizes and home ranges are mysteries. Otherwise, we may soon find many species exist in the dozens, requiring multi-million dollar captive breeding programs, as was done for the California condor. Worse yet, species will disappear before their plights are known to the world.
A paradigm shift of this nature will require NGOs and their global funding arms to reevaluate conservation priorities and strategies; understand the thresholds pushing species from one end of the endangered spectrum to the other; devise long-term conservation action opportunities for each species; and to both balance the funding distribution while dramatically increasing investments.
Known and unknown, all species on this planet are fighting to survive mankind, and the level of attention and investment, and timing of both, that we provide will determine their fates. Beginning the paradigm shift are organizations like Global Wildlife Conservation, which searches for those species all the more endangered for their anonymity, and Panthera, which is investing in the futures of all 40 wild cat species – big and small, known and unknown.
The aforementioned “most deadly pathogen known to science” likely traveled the world on the wings of the exotic pet trade, which threatens thousands of species. Diverting resources to fight trafficking is one holistic way in which we can balance the spending scale to benefit species on both the edge of extinction and conservation concern.
As we unite to celebrate the 49th Earth Day today, let us also unite to shift the conservation paradigm from intervention to prevention. If we can make the necessary investments to save species of "Least Concern" today, we’ll forego hiring armed guards to save the last of their kind in the future.
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