Cute animals are being overrated
The 2021 Climate Conference is a Math Problem: Understanding the Disappearance of Spectator Extinction on the Ground-Up
Compared to the 2021 United Nations climate conference in Glasgow or the meeting in Egypt last month, this gathering is getting little press coverage. There were some protesters in the streets of Montreal, but the mass movement was far smaller than the one demanding climate justice.
That’s the real trouble with spectacles of extinction: By seizing our attention and our hearts, they obscure the countless ongoing efforts to protect biodiversity from the ground up. Throughout the plains of North America, for example, the Indigenous communities whose expertise the conservation movement has long ignored are returning bison to the prairie ecosystem. Birds once considered pests have become partners in restoration in North America and Europe. The small, not particularly flashy butterfly that is called the Fender’s blue inspired collaboration that helped restore prairie habitat in the Pacific Northwest. And in Namibia, a leader in the worldwide community-led conservation movement, a national system of local conservancies has enabled those who live alongside endangered and other species to both participate in their protection and benefit from the resulting tourism and hunting opportunities. Thanks in part to the sustained efforts of Namibian conservancy members, the country’s cheetah population is not — for now, at least — racing against extinction, but stable.
Biodiversity protection is more complicated than climate protection, since it relies less directly on technology such as cheaper solar panels and has fewer clear measures of success.
The northern white rhino, a subspecies that has only two remaining members and whose future might depend on the ability of reproductive scientists to turn skin cells into stem cells, is an example of what we believe to be pervasive fascination with nature. We ponder curiosities such as so-called de-extinction, an unproven technology that may one day succeed in creating a hybrid individual with DNA from extinct and extant species, but will never reverse extinction. We post and donate on behalf of vulnerable species all over the world. Suzanne Brandon studied the experience ofvoluntourists in Libya and found that they were unaware or not very concerned about the plight of the species.
The biodiversity crisis is a math problem. This is a problem where getting hung up on the precise numbers can lead you astray, unlike most math problems. There are a million species at risk of extinction. Or if you’re going by species that scientists have specifically identified as threatened, it’s 42,100. Both of these are not exactly right. We can agree that extinction rates are much higher than historical averages. Or is it 100 times higher?
Here’s the thing: Whichever numbers you plug into the calculation, you get the same result. The planet is in a poor state. There are many, many more species faced with extinction than we can realistically save. In emergency situations we need to look after our victims.
Picking which species to protect and which to sideline is right at the heart of conservation, but we don’t talk enough about how these decisions are made. Do we pick species that are culturally significant, like the bald eagle? Or maybe we should focus on medicinally useful plants? What about species that are critical parts of their ecosystem? Or the ones that are most under threat? In the case of meerkats, they are cute, charismatic and the face of a long running British ad campaign to sell car insurance made them grab our attention.
There is another way of thinking about animals that can help us decide which species to protect. Gumbs believes that we should be more focused on species that are distinct from each other. The approach will lead us to strange and wonderful creatures. Take solenodons, for example. There are only a few venomous mammals left, and this shrew is one of them. Around 76 million years ago, the solenodon species diverged from other mammals. Many evolutionary history can be found on those small, hairy shoulders.
Scientists can measure just how unique and at-risk certain species are. In 2007, conservationists devised a metric called EDGE. It stands for “evolutionarily distinct and globally endangered,” and it was developed as a way to prioritize species for conservation that represented a large chunk of evolutionary history. To be highly ranked in terms of EDGE, a species needs to be extremely rare, have very few close living ancestors, and be extremely vulnerable to extinction.
Gumbs calls these species “weird and wonderful”—they diverged so long ago from their ancestors and have so few living relatives that they stick out to us as unusual. To use a word like edgy is what species like this are. The bright pink blind snake is an alternative to the living animal that was 65 million years ago.