September 11, 2012

Is 100 Most Threatened Species List A Popularity Contest?

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Are the important causes of biodiversity and conservation devolving into more and more of a popularity contest?

More than 8,000 scientists from the world´s preeminent conservation organization, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), have established for the first time, 100 of the most threatened animals, plants and fungi on the planet. However, they said many of these species may become extinct because they are not known to provide humans with obvious benefits.

"The donor community and conservation movement are leaning increasingly towards a 'what can nature do for us' approach, where species and wild habitats are valued and prioritized according to the services they provide for people,” explained Jonathan Baillie, the Zoological Society of London's (ZSL) Director of Conservation. “This has made it increasingly difficult for conservationists to protect the most threatened species on the planet.”

“While the utilitarian value of nature is important, conservation goes beyond this. Do these species have a right to survive or do we have a right to drive them to extinction?"

Species on the list include the Singapore freshwater crab, Spoon-billed sandpiper, and the wild yam. Most threatened species are victims of human activity such as development-related habitat loss, poaching, over-grazing of livestock, and pollution.

The report detailing the list, titled “Priceless or Worthless?”, will be presented on Tuesday at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in South Korea. It asserts that society´s conservation efforts are focused on species that benefit us or have some kind of aesthetic appeal, like the giant panda or Bengal tiger.

The title “Priceless or Worthless?” is somewhat of a misnomer as many of the species are under threat because of their perceived value. For example, the Javan rhino is hunted for its horn´s medicinal uses, Luristan newts are victims of the pet trade, and the Pangasid catfish population is decimated by overfishing.

"All the species listed are unique and irreplaceable. If they vanish, no amount of money can bring them back,” said ZSL official Ellen Butcher. “However, if we take immediate action we can give them a fighting chance for survival. But this requires society to support the moral and ethical position that all species have an inherent right to exist."

The situation appears quite dire for many species that are down to a few dozen individuals, according to the report. The saola of Southeast Asia is often referred to as the Asian unicorn because of its rarity and the report notes that these antelope may be down to few tens of individuals. The Red River softshell turtle population is down to four individuals.

"All species have a value to nature and thus, in turn to us humans," said Simon Stuart, chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission. "Although the value of some species may not appear obvious at first, all species in fact contribute in their way to the healthy functioning of the planet."

The report also recommends courses of action to preserve each species. These recommendations range from raising awareness to increasing habitat protection and regulation enforcement.