6 min read

Which Species Should We Save?

According to the IUCN Red List, there are currently more than 22,000 species categorized as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. In an ideal world we would be able to save all of these species but in reality this just isn't possible; resources are limited so how do conservationists decide which species to focus on?

World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has defined some priority species to target their efforts on. These species are all either important for the ecosystem that they live in (for example, a key element of the food chain) or for people (for example, providing livelihoods for local communities). These species are split into two further groups; flagship species and footprint-impacted species.

Image courtesy of playlight55

Flagship species are iconic animals that are important for raising awareness and funds for broader conservation efforts. Think of any major conservation appeal you have seen recently and this will have featured a flagship species, generally something cute and fluffy that captures the public's imagination. Examples include giant pandas, orangutans and tigers.

Image courtesy of Tambako the Jaguar

Footprint-impacted species on the other hand are those that are threatened mainly because of human activities, such as hunting, logging or fishing. Examples include lesser known or less attractive, but still very important, species such as the saiga antelope, cacti and tuna. Many of these species have high economic value too.

Other conservation organizations use similar criteria. Additional species that tend to be prioritized are umbrella species such as elephants (protecting these animals indirectly protects many more), keystone species such as jaguars (these have a disproportionate effect on their environment), indicator species such as sea turtles (which give us information on environmental factors like climate change) or species with significant cultural value.

Image courtesy of Tony Hisgett

There is some concern, however, that the way conservation organizations generally prioritize species is flawed. Lists of the most endangered species contain many species, such as the blunt-headed salamander, that are not charismatic and do not have any economic value. However they may be essential components of their ecosystems. Ants are important as they aerate soils, distribute seeds and eat other insects including those we consider pests. But major donors and the general public are much less likely to choose to help ants and other creepy crawlies over iconic flagship species.

The EDGE of Existence program offers another way. This program scores the world's mammals, amphibians, corals and birds according to how Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) they are. EDGE species tend to be very unique in terms of looks, behavior and genetics. This program highlights the gap in current conservation efforts – two-thirds of the top 100 EDGE mammals and 85% of amphibians are currently receiving little or no conservation attention. The EDGE program aims to complement rather than replace existing conservation efforts, ensuring that some of the world's most distinct species do not slide away into extinction unnoticed.

As ever with conservation, there are tough decisions to be made. It is impossible to save every species but it is up to conservationists to balance out the cute and fluffy with the scaly and important. A balance between protecting flagship species and EDGE species probably offers the best system.

by Rose Argall Rose Argall is a research and development Intern at Frontier, an international non-profit volunteering NGO. Frontier has over 300 dedicated conservation and community development projects. For more information on all the opportunities available please visit www.frontier.ac.uk, and check out our blog Into the Wild .

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