Why We Have to Save Wildlife to Save

Wild panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) in China.

When children go outdoors today (to the extent that they go outdoors at all) they see 35 percent fewer individual butterflies and moths than their parents would have seen 40 years ago, and 28 percent fewer individual vertebrates—birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and fish. It’s not quite a silent spring, just one that is becoming quieter with each passing year, insidiously, so we hardly notice. The Science authors dub this phenomenon “defaunation.” I prefer to think of it as “the great vanishing,” but either way it’s bad news.

Why don’t we do something about it? Wildlife conservation suffers under the misguided notion that it is a boutique issue. “Animals do matter to people,” says one article in the Science special issue, “but on balance, they matter less than food, jobs, energy, money, and development. As long as we continue to view animals in ecosystems as irrelevant to these basic demands, animals will lose.”

That need not be as hopeless as it sounds, because the authors go on to remind us in alarming detail just how utterly our economic and political well-being depends on keeping wildlife populations healthy. Insect pollinator populations, for instance, are in free fall. But they are essential for 75 percent of the world’s food crops. Somewhat less obviously, native predators—mainly insects, birds, and bats—also provide natural pest control, worth an estimated $4.5 billion annually in the United States. Half our pharmaceuticals come from the natural world, many of them from wildlife. The fer-de-lance snake, for instance, gave us ACE inhibitors, our most effective medicine for heart disease. A deadly cone snail gave us a painkiller called Prialt that’s more potent than morphine yet not addictive.

Much more directly, a billion of the world’s poorest people depend on wildlife as their main source of animal protein, and 2.6 billion rely on seafood protein. Failure to manage these resources so they will be available next year and the year after is a recipe for starvation, civil unrest, terrorism, and the collapse of economies, if not of civilization itself.

The authors also propose more radical forms of species translocations. Conservationists in Australia and Asia have introduced populations of the kakapo, or owl parrot, to remote islands, to protect them from introduced mammalian predators on the mainland. Likewise, a population of disease-free Tasmanian devils is living outside its native range. In some cases where important species have gone extinct, it may help to introduce a substitute species that performs a similar ecological function. Aldabra giant tortoises, for instance, have now replaced an extinct Mauritian tortoise to restore grazing functions and seed dispersal of native large-seeded plants on that island.

Finally, the authors argue for “a new model of coexistence between predators and humans over large spatial scales,” and they cite as a model the recovery, in densely populated Europe, of golden jackals, gray wolves, Eurasian lynx, Iberian lynx, and wolverines.One hitch may be that we don’t know which species we depend on, and we may not even recognize when some nematode, or beetle, or bat that is functionally more important than, say, the rhino, is disappearing.

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