Pictures of an animal with big ears, long fingers and tail; a buffalo; a squirrel-like animal with stripes; and a bird with purple wings, pink neck, and yellow head.

Conservation can’t just be a popularity contest

We often work to save the most charismatic species. Is it time to think beyond pandas and tigers?

PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTO ARK

Take a good look at the American burying beetle, aka the giant carrion beetle. Essentially the vulture of the insect world, this bug once scuttled in droves across 35 states, scouring our fruited plains of all manner of carcasses. Today the beetle is assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as critically endangered. Habitat loss, pesticides, and light pollution may be some of the factors that have left this natural recycler hanging on in only four scattered populations.

Like the tiger, the American burying beetle has orange and black stripes; like the tiger, the beetle is declining in number. The tiger is an instantly recognizable symbol of species preservation, but most people aren’t familiar with the beetle.

This discrepancy is an example of the domination of flagship species—the charismatic creatures that nonprofits, government agencies, and other groups use to drum up public interest in conservation. Most flagships represent just three mammalian orders—primates, predators, and ungulates. That’s largely because humans gravitate toward large-bodied animals with forward-facing eyes, humanlike traits that make such species more relatable. As Hugh Possingham, chief scientist for the state of Queensland, Australia, puts it, “It’s hard to look into the eyes of a plant.”

I’ve always focused on such shadow species in my work as a wildlife editor and writer—but many don’t share my perspective. Most nonprofit funds for animal protection go to the so-called celebrity species, such as apes, elephants, big cats, rhinoceroses, and giant pandas. Tigers are often rated the most popular animal in public surveys—and India, home to the majority of these big cats, spent more than $49 million on tiger conservation alone in 2019. (Related: Is it time to rethink how we decide which species to save?)

That’s all well and good. Meanwhile, many lesser known species of fish, reptiles, amphibians, and birds languish in anonymity. Take the Philippine crocodile, which is down to about a hundred individuals, or the angel shark, which once ranged throughout European waters and is now extinct in the North Sea. Plants and invertebrates sit even lower on the popularity totem pole; in North America, a freshwater mussel extinction may already be under way. Worldwide, more than 35,500 plant and animal species are on the verge of disappearing forever.

This leaves us with a dilemma. Conservation is underfunded—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal agencies sometimes get less than a quarter of the money needed to restore threatened species. The same goes for private philanthropy: In the United States in 2019, just 3 percent of total charitable dollars went to animals and the environment. With a limited pot of money available, how do we decide which species to save? The answer, to borrow a phrase, is complicated. It could depend on an animal’s likelihood of survival; how it contributes to our economy, as in the case of Atlantic salmon; personal preferences of decision-makers—and, often, politics.

One potential solution, the controversial idea of conservation triage, holds that experts need to quickly decide which species can be saved while realizing that others can’t be saved. In the 1980s, when the California condor dwindled to about 22 animals in the wild, debate raged over whether to invest heavily in captive breeding of the species or let it go. Breeding won out, and there are now more than 500 California condors—scavengers that keep their habitats clean—in the wild in California, Utah, Arizona, and northern Mexico. It’s generally considered to have been a smart decision.

In other cases, making uninformed or ad hoc decisions about conservation can lead to gross misallocation, says Leah Gerber, a conservation scientist at Arizona State University.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has spent more than four million dollars a year to boost populations of the endangered northern spotted owl, native to the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. But Gerber says it’s considered a “costly failure” given that its population is not increasing despite the investment. Texas’ threatened bunched cory cactus, on the other hand, gets only about $140,000 a year from the government, yet it could be recovered with an investment of a few tens of thousands more, she says.

That’s why Gerber and other conservationists have developed analytic tools to approach the question in a less emotional, more practical way. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now uses this knapsack method—inspired by a hiker’s need to fit the most valuable items into a small space—to get the “most bang for their buck” in saving species, Gerber says. The method’s algorithm calculates the most efficient conservation strategies using factors such as costs to recover a species and its likelihood of going extinct.

Possingham developed a similar model, employed by the Australian and New Zealand governments, called Project Prioritization Protocol. It lessens the pressure and controversy of choosing which species to save by focusing on cost-effectiveness, he says: “It’s exactly how you buy your potatoes, rice, and meat. It really is just common sense.”

Another approach is prioritizing threatened species by their degree of uniqueness. Called EDGE species—for evolutionarily distinct and globally endangered—these are plants and animals that have few close relatives and may single-handedly represent a whole branch of evolutionary history. Losing EDGE species such as Madagascar’s aye-aye, Australia’s numbat, Africa’s shoebill, or the Chinese giant salamander could eliminate a “storehouse of benefits in the tree of life that we haven’t explored,” says Nisha Owen of the U.K. nonprofit On the EDGE Conservation. For example, the critically endangered axolotl, a salamander native to Mexico, has regenerative properties that could advance human medicine, she says. (Read about species that have bounced back from extinction.)

In Owen’s view, the triage conservation model asks what we’re going to let go, while the EDGE model more optimistically asks what we’re going to focus on. The EDGE model assigns scores to species based on evolutionary distinctiveness and global endangerment and prioritizes those with the highest scores. Today, Owen says, 90 of the hundred highest priority species need more conservation attention.

Some argue that conservation should focus on whole ecosystems instead of single species. Others espouse what’s called the umbrella method—the notion that by living in a celebrity species’ habitat, smaller creatures will be protected as well.

The thing is, that only works in some situations. Take the beloved giant panda. In putting so much effort into its national icon, China has at least partially protected many of its native forest birds and mammals in the panda’s habitat, such as the Lady Amherst’s pheasant and the endangered golden snub-nosed monkey, says Duke University conservationist Stuart Pimm.

On the other hand, the endangered purple frog, found only in the Bengal tiger’s range of India’s Western Ghats, has not benefited from massive investments in the tiger’s habitat, Owen says. That’s because what the purple frog needs to thrive—land with fast-flowing streams and largely free of roads—is different from what the tiger needs.

Pimm also offers this caution: that even carefully crafted, supposedly rational conservation methods may have flaws—and may provide “an excuse not to make tough decisions about conservation.” Leaning on data alone, he argues, could give government agencies the all clear to let species go extinct or even provide a scientific rationale for a political decision.

I suspect that most of us who care about animals could agree on this: Charisma is in the eye of the beholder. In that case, can’t we broaden the list of animals considered appealing and even beautiful? University of Kent conservationist Bob Smith says we can—and there’s a name for them: Cinderella species. These are mostly threatened animals that, based on internet searches, are still very popular with the public yet are typically overlooked as flagships. Think Mindoro dwarf buffalo, African wild ass, pygmy raccoon—and there are many more. Smith is convinced that “less well known and less appealing species can still be good flagships with more marketing effort.”

In a recent study, Smith laid to rest another myth about poster animals: that they don’t help publicize the world’s most species-rich and threatened places. A prioritization model Smith created showed that the most important conservation hot spots worldwide also are home to more than 500 flagship and Cinderella mammals, birds, and reptiles—and that drawing more attention to these animals could boost funding and public campaigns for habitat protection.

Let’s be clear, though: It’s still OK to root for pandas and tigers. “The reason I got into conservation is because I liked these species,” Smith says. “That is fair enough. But it’s our job as conservationists to try to inspire people to love other species too.”

Christine Dell’Amore, a veteran National Geographic editor and writer, covers wildlife and is a self-described fan of underloved and little-appreciated animals.

National Geographic Explorer and photographer Joel Sartore is founder of the National Geographic Photo Ark, a multiyear project using the power of photography to inspire people to help save species at risk before it’s too late. The National Geographic Society has supported the Photo Ark since 2012.

This story appears in the May 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Correction: A photo caption incorrectly identified the numbat as the only carnivorous marsupial left on Earth. There are more than 70 other carnivorous marsupials.

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