Is it worth saving the world’s most worthless species?

26 November 2012 | Article

By Victoria Martindale, a postgraduate student in primate conservation and a member of the Primate Society of Great Britain.

In September IUCN and the Zoological Society of London published the world’s 100 most endangered species in a report titled Priceless or Worthless? These species are at risk because they are considered to be of little economic value to man. At the same time a bill of £50 billion a year has been estimated as the cost of saving the world’s endangered species and the world is asking itself if it can afford this.

“It is that range of biodiversity that we must care for – the whole thing – rather than just one or two stars”

That global government budgets can afford this trivial bill to save species from disappearing forever goes without saying but whether we decide to pick up the tab or not only time will tell. Yet rather than discriminate species, conservation efforts of all strategies should remember David Attenborough’s words: “It is that range of biodiversity that we must care for – the whole thing – rather than just one or two stars”.

Like so many other fauna and flora whose survival is threatened these species are among the latest that are not valued to reflect their diversity or natural value but by their desirability to human consumers. By prioritising their economic worth these ecosystems services and species are traded in the market place like commodities. Critics, however, are concerned that there is a potential ‘mismatch’ between the services provided and vying institutions which could price out the poorest people most dependent upon them.

Payment for ecosystem services is nothing new

But payment for ecosystem services is not as new as it may seem. As far back as the 17th century the colonial powers awoke to the benefit of maintaining ecosystems. Natural resources have long been valued, and therefore managed, to supply timber, mineral extraction, bush meat, fish and pastureland. And since the 1980s, exploiting these values has been a tool employed in earnest to link the conservation of biological diversity to social and economic development.

However, it can be hard to attach a monetary value to all ecosystem services. Markets only exist for a certain range of services and some are not amenable to valuation at all, such as the fertilizing effect of atmospheric dust carried across the Atlantic. But even those that are hard to price nonetheless fulfill a wealth of essential functions we could not afford to be without: water filtration, soil protection and crop pollination, for example.

Indigenous rainforests harbour a wealth of powerful medicinal plants too, like periwinkles and quinine from cinchona trees, that have already helped to keep us healthy for thousands of years. However, once they are gone, so too are their potential secrets to some of the other deadly and debilitating conditions we face today. Are we prepared to let our health miss out on this wealth?

It is absurd to question the bill of saving biodiversity

Given all the myriad benefits, it seems nothing but absurd therefore that anyone could consider any animal, plant or fungi on this planet to be of no value. Just as absurd, is questioning the bill to save them.

Yet if man is to continue on his current trajectory, at some point, hopefully many, many years from now, when we may well find ourselves deep in a mass extinction and extant natural ecosystems are scarce, a biological apocalypse could be a real and potential outcome. Our own lives will be impoverished and under threat, quite unrecognisable from today. If we are to prosper as a species, therefore, our future lies in conserving other species and habitats in all their diversity. We know this, and yet still we do not act with responsibility. What does it take?

Many conservationists have unsurprisingly reacted in horror to the possibility that these 100 endangered species, singled out for their worthlessness, are to disappear forever.

The traditional approach of protecting nature for its own sake and commercially-driven strategies have failed

Of course, they are absolutely justified in the tragedy of this. Believe me, I feel just as passionately about their conservation as they do. But the traditional approach of protecting nature for its own sake and commercially-driven strategies that cherry pick have largely failed to stop the dwindling of species. And so I find myself remembering a prophetic warning from Thomas Fuller: "We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.”

Staring at photos of spoon billed sandpipers, sloths, gopher frogs and blister cactus I would endorse Fuller’s words. It would seem that everything that we have leant and witnessed over the past decades about the devastating effects of our activities have not been enough to take meaningful action on the scale required. It is this lack of responsibility that is the reason we should let these 100 species go. Only by pushing the planet beyond the limits of its natural resources that is eventually to the detriment of mankind itself do I believe we will ever start to take genuine steps to lead sustainable lifestyles that protect the natural world. Perhaps a mass extinction is what it takes and therein lays the solutions to combat the destruction of our planet.

Saving only certain species would be a meaningless victory that the planet cannot afford, no matter how cheap it comes. So perhaps in these critical times we shouldn’t save any. And so bring on the next mass extinction is what I find myself saying.