No longer can the effects of human activities on the planet be questioned. Wide-scale deforestation, acidification of the oceans, depleted fish stocks and climate change have resulted in tens of thousands of species being pushed to extinction. With so many species at risk of being lost forever, and limited resources to protect them, which species shall be saved? and which will be allowed to be lost?
Many people may struggle to decide which species we can afford to lose, and instead feel every species must be protected in some way. However, the current rate of extinction (200-2000 species extinct per year) doesn’t allow for this sort of long-term action to be undertaken quickly enough. People have been trying to mobilise the public and get others interested in conservation for decades now, and whilst there is a steady increase in public interest, it is not fast enough to get ecosystems the protection they need now. It is for this reason that conservation organisations and agencies select parts of an ecosystem, or a handful of species to protect. By protecting only a part of the system they are able to apply more resources and improve the chances of being saved. But this brings the dilemma for conservationists and there public alike; which species should we put the resources into saving?
There is already plenty of information, and opinions on the topic that provide some interesting ideas and here I hope to outline just a sample of the plans proposed by organisations to protect biodiversity.
The general public has ideas on conservation that differ from conservation scientists greatly. This is where the use of flagship species can help bridge that divide. A flagship species is one that is easily recognisable and charismatic. For example, save the whales, WWF’s panda, tiger, gorilla and elephant are all flagship species. They are generally large animals considered to be charismatic and intelligent, that capture the publics imagination. Campaigns are created using these species as a symbol for the project as a means to get people interested in conservation.
By showing these recognisable animals to the public and explaining that without protection they could be lost forever, organisations have received huge support for projects which may not have been possible without borrowing the charisma of the flagship species. One issues with flagship species is that the public are missing out on the full information about conservation issues which instead is blanketed by this one species. It is easy to spot the use of flagship species in media, how often have you seen photos of baby tigers overlaid with donation requests?, the biggest benefit of flagship species is by using the charisma of the panda, the donations can be used to protect the whole ecosystem they inhabit, this provides protection to creatures which the public may not wish to donate to such as insects and invertebrates.
There have been cases when a flagship species received a large amount of donations from the public which then has gone to protecting just that species by setting up centres which don’t assist the ecosystem as a whole. But with a clear plan of how the money will be used flagships species can be a conservationists best friend and be of huge benefit to the ecosystem.
Keystone species are examples of a species whos presences influences their habitat. The removal of keystone species would result in the habitat shifting to some other form, this shift may result in the extinction of numerous other species also. An examples of a keystone species is the African elephant. Elephants live and feed on the grasslands of Africa. These grasslands have trees and shrubs growing throughout but they are often damaged or destroyed by the presence of elephants. It is this action that maintains the grassland. Without the elephants destructive habits the trees would spread and the grassland would soon change into a forest habitat. Because of this the elephant is protected as a keystone species (and also a flagship species) as without it the animals that rely on the grasslands may also be lost.
Whilst any animal has some sort of effect on its ecosystem these keystone species have a huge impact on their range that greatly alters the area. One of the most famous examples of a keystone species are beavers. Though relatively small creatures the removal of trees for dams can dramatically alter a forest into a wetland habitat within months. These wetlands act as a breeding ground for hundreds of invertebrate species and greatly increase the biodiversity of the area.
The protection of foundations species is the idea that by protecting some of the species at the lowest trophic level this will in turn protect all those species rely on it. An example of this is kelp in the oceans. Kelp provides food, shelter and oxygen to many of the species that rely on the kelp forests. By protecting the kelp protection to animals throughout the trophic web can be provided.
There can be confusion between what is a foundation species and what is a keystone species. But just think that the foundation supports the rest of the structure where the keystone doesn’t add much but holds the structure together. Because of this many conservationist may feel protecting the foundation species is the most important species as without them the ecosystem may not be able to support anything else. However, getting the public excited and interested in conserving foundations can be a huge difficulty. It is rare to hear about a save the grass campaign on TV. But they are indeed one of the most important species to save.
Which species to save?
Using the information about species and they category they fall into conservations are faced regularly with the decision of which species to protect. But new discoverers are always happening, and sometime completely changing our view as to who is worthy of saving. Of course there is plenty more information around the topic, and very strong opinions on ever side of the debate. But by getting people interested in conservation and the information out there, hopefully we can make a bit more room on the ark and save a few more species from extinction.