May 9, 2006
Amid Extinctions, Parrots, Panthers get Costly Aid
By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent
OSLO (Reuters) - Australia's orange-bellied parrot and the Florida panther are in an exclusive but growing club -- rare species getting costly protection even as the world faces what may be the worst wave of extinctions since the dinosaurs.
Governments in rich nations sometimes write virtual blank checks to protect exotic animals -- even as thousands of less glamorous creatures and plants slide silently into oblivion.
Many experts say it is impossible to set a ceiling on the value of a species and that willingness to pay may be widening, posing risks for businesses like mining, industry or logging that affect the habitats of rare animals or plants.
"Willingness to pay is related to wealth," said Don Coursey, a professor in public policy studies at the University of Chicago. "As world wealth tends to grow, willingness to pay to protect species is growing even faster."
Coursey once wrote a report estimating it cost $4.9 million per creature to protect the endangered Florida panther -- the most expensive U.S. protection scheme and more than many insurers pay for a human life.
The California condor was second at $1.6 million per bird.
PARROTS VS WINDMILLS
In April, the Australian government vetoed a $200 million wind energy project in the southern state of Victoria to protect the rare orange-bellied parrot.
"I'm required under the law to put in place a recovery plan to make sure that the bird does not go extinct," Environment Minister Ian Campbell told Australian radio.
Even so, one study showed the threat from the windmill project was one dead parrot every 1,000 years.
In one of the most costly examples, animal lovers paid $20 million to retrain Keiko the killer whale, star of the "Free Willy" movies, for life in the wild. Keiko died of pneumonia in a Norwegian fjord in 2003, 18 months after he was freed.
"We even balk at asking what is the value of a person's life. And it's the same for many species," said Partha Dasgupta, an environmental economist at Cambridge University in England.
"There are cases where people have emotional attachments to animals. But we don't care about rare micro-organisms or worms."
In Coursey's study, creatures such as shrews, mice and salamanders were at the bottom of the animal spending list with almost zero protection.
But in a possible sign of public concern widening to less attractive species, New Zealand's state-owned Solid Energy Ltd agreed in April to resettle -- by hand -- rare snails before developing a $300 million coal deposit.
In a landmark 1978 ruling in favor of a rare fish and against developers of a hydroelectric dam on the Tennessee River, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress "viewed the value of endangered species as 'incalculable."'
It said it had no way of weighing the loss to a company over a dam project -- even if it was $100 million -- against the fish whose value was deemed "incalculable."
The dam was eventually built, after stocks of the tiny snail darter fish were found elsewhere.
A United Nations report in March said humans were causing the worst spate of extinctions since the dinosaurs vanished 65 million years ago and it warned the world would have to make unprecedented efforts to reach a goal of slowing losses by 2010.
"The direct causes of biodiversity loss -- habitat change, over-exploitation, the introduction of invasive species, nutrient loading and climate change -- show no sign of abating," it said.
Thousands of species have already become extinct due to human activities, from the flightless dodo of Mauritius to the Tasmanian tiger.
Environmentalists have long known that the plight of a single species -- such as pandas, polar bears or elephants -- is often more effective in mobilizing public awareness than talking about threats to an entire region.
Some species become symbols for a wider threat to their habitats -- like the Florida panther whose plight embodied the risks posed to the Everglades from roads, farms and homes.
"I don't think we should knowingly allow any species to go extinct if we can prevent it," said Jeff McNeely, chief scientist at the World Conservation Union.
"But it's less a question of how much do we spend to save than how much we don't spend to destroy," he said.
In an example of protection, oil major Royal Dutch Shell and its partners in the Sakhalin Energy consortium agreed last year to reroute pipelines off Russia's coast to protect the Western Gray Whale. They have also spent $7 million on whale research.
Still, some environmental groups say Shell is not doing enough for the whales, which number about 100.
The Anglo-Dutch company also spent $2 million to build holes in a jetty jutting into a Russian bay to allow salmon to swim through. Apparently wary of the structure, however, the fish are swimming round.
(Additional reporting by David Fogarty in Singapore)