Endangered species: If you can save only one, which should you choose?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
March 15 2011 6:55 AM

So Many Species, So Little Money

Which endangered species should I save?

Elephants. Click image to expand.
Which species needs saving the most?

I'd like to "adopt" an endangered species for my daughter's birthday. She'd probably prefer a bear, either polar or panda, since they make the cutest plush toys. But which animal should I sponsor to make the greatest impact?

Your question addresses one of the great controversies in the environmentalist community—conservation triage. Researchers estimate that we're losing as many as 27,000 species every year, about 300 times the pre-human extinction rate. Triage advocates argue that we have no legitimate hope of saving all of the world's endangered creatures, so we ought to think seriously about how to allocate our resources for the greatest effect. Others find this position both defeatist and hopelessly theoretical, and point out that few triage-ists have the courage to recommend specific candidates for extinction. ("Triage is a four-letter word—and I know how to count," says Stuart Pimm, a conservation scientist at Duke University.)

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Four factors typically inform triage theory. The first is value. Some species exhibit unique genetic, anatomic, or behavioral traits. If these creatures were to die off, a branch of the evolutionary tree would die with them. Other "valuable" animals have prized economic, cultural, or even aesthetic qualities. (It's apparently OK to talk about cuteness, even among conservationists.)

The second factor is the biodiversity benefit. Conservationists like to protect so-called "keystone" species, on which entire ecosystems rely. Pollinators and coral are classic examples. In other cases, eliminating the threat to an "umbrella species" would help others. For instance, cordoning off a section of the beach to protect a particular nesting bird may also benefit turtles and seals.

Probability of success is the third factor: What are the odds that our efforts will work? It's not always clear what's ailing an animal. We know that a fungus is partly responsible for amphibians' massive, worldwide die-off. But scientists disagree over the reasons for the outbreak. Some think that drugging the frogs may save them. Others think climate change has made them more susceptible to disease, and solving this fungus won't solve the larger problem. Until we can get to the root of the issue, the impact of your charitable giving is uncertain.

In theory, you're supposed to multiply these three factors—species value, biodiversity benefits, and probability of success—and divide the product by the fourth factor: cost. The result should tell you which animal to save.

In practice, however, you'll find it difficult to boil all these factors down into a single ranking. It's easier to focus instead on a few especially good candidates per factor. If you'd like to save a branch of the evolutionary tree, consider the Brothers Island tuatara. While only vulnerable, not endangered, it's one of only two species remaining in its order. Endangered species with unique traits include the Cuban solenodon, one of the few mammals to inject venom through its teeth. If you'd prefer something a little less, well, hideous for your child, consider the culturally, economically, and aesthetically significant Asian elephant. It has profound connections to Hindu traditions and helps villagers work in areas that are inaccessible to machinery. Generally speaking, EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered) is a good organization to support if you're interested in the most unique creatures.

A good resource for high-impact donation strategies is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Endangered Species Program, which has developed prioritized action lists for endangered species, along with the cost of each action. (Check out example plans for the Florida panther [PDF] or the red wolf [PDF].)You could pick a high-priority, low-cost action item, like protecting habitat or developing a disease prevention plan, then donate your money to the private conservation organization that has partnered with Fish and Wildlife to accomplish it. Your local FWS office can help direct you to the right conservation groups.

Maybe you like long-shots. If so, go to the IUCN Red List and search for species that are critically endangered (3,565 worldwide), or extinct in the wild (63 unfortunate species). The aforementioned amphibians, 488 of which are critically endangered or surviving only in captivity, are particularly compelling candidates.

Or think locally. The Red List includes 8,884 endangered species in the United States, and you can even search by state. The Lantern is particularly fond of the black-footed ferret, which has come back from extinction and now feasts on unsuspecting prairie dogs in the Western states. Once you find a good candidate, look for local groups or university researchers, many of whom are desperate for donations of any size. Even $50 can help them feed captive breeding populations, monitor individuals in the wild, or trap invasive predators like the brown tree snakes that decimated Guam's bird population. (Be aware that some conservationists think you'd be better directing your money to places with a greater density of threatened species, like Madagascar or Indonesia, than keeping it in the relatively nonbiodiverse United States.)

The Lantern understands the appeal of trying to save a single species, but general habitat preservation will typically get you the most bang for your buck. This usually means buying up and reforesting degraded land. You might want to focus on biodiversity hotspots, where some of the world's most important species live. If you're looking to give your child something tangible, consider SavingSpecies.org. The group will send you a Google Earth image of your habitat purchase to show your kids the reforestation process. If your child absolutely must have the plush toy, pick up a Golden Lion Tamarin. Scientists aren't above using these so-called "mascot" or "charismatic" species to rope in donors.

In general, your best bet is to stick with reputable organizations like major conservation groups, universities, or government-sponsored programs. No species-saving project is guaranteed to succeed, but there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Captive breeding organizations like the Peregrine Fund, for example, nursed the peregrine falcon from DDT-induced near extinction just decades ago to removal from the endangered species list. Other success stories abound.

Donate early, donate often, and consider spreading your money across different species. Plush toys are decidedly nonendangered.

The Green Lantern thanks Felicity Arengo of the American Museum of Natural History, Resit Ackakaya of Stony Brook University, Madeleine Bottrill of the University of Queensland, Georgina Mace of Imperial College in London, John Marzluff of the University of Washington, Stuart Pimm of Duke University, Phil Rainbow of the Natural History Museum in London, Rod Sayler of Washington State University, and David Wilcove of Princeton University.

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and Earthwire. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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