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A design perspective on saving endangered species

Pan troglodytes (Common chimpanzee), an endangered species in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda (Photo credit: Organization for Tropical Studies as part of the TEAM Network Partnership – taken as a part of the first "Global Camera Trap Mammal" study)

A chimp in impenetrable forest. Click for more photos.

At ABC Newswe learn, “Time is running out to save mammals (August 16, 2011):

Of the 5339 documented species of mammals that are alive today, a quarter are threatened with extinction in the wild, according to their estimates.

And, we are offered a “new strategy.” A group of biologists proposes to solve the problem by introducing the mother of all bureaucracies:

They suggested the UN’s Biodiversity Convention weave a single vision, identifying which areas and species are at risk and how resources can be mustered to save them.

This work should then be coordinated by an authoritative institution with global reach, such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

One thing you can’t accuse today’s conservationist of is an excess of common sense. How would bigger bloat at the UN help with the following set of facts?:

Africa is, hands down, the hardest hit. Africa is also home to most of the world’s poorest, most desperate human beings, also the most likely victims of violence. So we are asking women who watch their children suffer with malnutrition to care about some life form out in the bush, that lacks any economic or emotional value, that they rarely even see.

It gets worse. We’re not even all that sure of our facts:

Quantifying such perils is hard, given that many mammals are elusive species and may live in fragmented, out-of-the-way habitats, the experts admitted.

Indeed, Australian investigators reported last September that of 187 mammals that have been “missing” since 1500, 67 species have subsequently been found again.

Not only that, but many listings could just be political opportunism, as with the sagebrush lizard. So we waste resources producing social conflict over non-problems while real problems go unattended.

Another thing, governments don‘t run countries; bureaucracies do. In this case, the bureaucracy might have a bigger annual budget than a small, poor country – which means what, in terms of their relationship?

These biologists deserve great credit for the 52,000 photos they gathered of elusive wild animals, but their proposed solution is not a new strategy: It’s the same old strategy.

Looking at the situation from a design perspective, one might observe two things:

1. It’s probably difficult to extinguish an animal from an environment to which it is well adapted because adaptations work on so many levels. An animal that is easily extinguished is probably just clinging anyway.

Therefore, we should pick our battles carefully, based on in-depth studies of a life form’s role in an ecology. As things stand, emotion rules. Far more people would care if lions died out on the Serengeti than if earthworms died out in Germany – but it’s the latter loss that would be catastrophic. Can we eliminate the emotion? Of course not, but if we care enough to do things right, emotion mustn’t rule.

2. Speaking of emotion, far more people worldwide care about lion cubs than African children. And that’s a key cause of endangerment of many trophy species today. Let’s take poaching, for example. It’ easy for rich foreigners to get upset. But if a man can pay his kids’ school fees by capturing and selling a chimp to a private zoo collector, who’s to blame him? Especially when there is no legitimate industry in his region, and if he owned much of anything, it would be looted by corrupt officials? (The ones he discreetly pays off to keep quiet about the poaching. And does anyone really believe that UN bloat will change that? )

Oh, and you say that chimps are “just like us”? Yes, well, surprise, surprise, that guy’s kids are just like him. And who in their right mind would not expect him to be more concerned about them than about the chimp?

To come near a solution, we need to make it as much in his interest to police poaching as it currently is to poach. That means thinking pragmatically, not emotionally. If there is a private zoo and research facility market for chimpanzees, then there will either be poaching or breeding. The advantage of persuading poachers to start breeding animals instead is that they then police poachers themselves. In the Wild West, they strung guys up for that (Lynch’s Law).

Don’t expect to see much informed discussion of these issues in legacy mainstream media. Their formula does not admit of any reflection beyond cute cub faces in the water, with an ominous question mark or two. And a thousand African kids have to die before anyone even notices briefly.

Which is too bad, because we’ll have much better luck warding off extinctions if we start treating people as if they were unique (a design perspective). The local people are not just obstructions to whatever we happen to want. They  are the only ones who can really do anything about local extinctions.

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25 Responses to A design perspective on saving endangered species

  1. 1

    The problem of who is presently and who should ideally bear the costs of biodiversity conservation is a current one in conservation biology. As you say, a large part of the solution is working with local communities and giving them incentives for conservation. Making it more worth their while to conserve biodiversity than it is to pillage it.

    That approach is the thinking behind elements of the European Common Agricultural Policy, which many would like to see expanded. A large proportion of European biodiversity is dependent on tradition, low-intensity farming systems. Rather than have him/her intensify productivity at cost to the environment, there are funding schemes to pay him/her to maintain low-intensity farming and produce environmental goods and services. As we all benefit, we all pay.

    The problem is transferring this model to Africa and other places where governments are weak, people are poor and industry, such as multinational timber companies, are rich. That’s why an internationally coordinated and supported effort would be a great benefit. You seem to assume that the UNCBD and IUCN would ignore this type of approach, when “identifying what resources can be mustered” could include programmes to support communities in developing countries to conserve and sustainably use biodiversity.

    How would you propose turning poachers into gamekeepers without large scale coordination?

  2. 2

    On another note:

    It’s probably difficult to extinguish an animal from an environment to which it is well adapted because adaptations work on so many levels. An animal that is easily extinguished is probably just clinging anyway.

    is completely wrong.

    It’s very easy to extirpate an animal or a plant from an environment to which it is well adapted, if the environment is limited in extent. For example, environments with rare combinations of soil, water, and climate conditions. Or environments that are the last fragment of a larger ecosystem type that has been lost due to human interference or natural processes.

    As for the emotional factors, conservation biologists are well used to the problem that charismatic megafauna get most of the attention and money. It’s a PR problem that’s hard to change. I don’t see how this comes from a design perspective?

  3. I’ve seen it stated on this site that 90% (and someone even said 99%) of all species have gone extinct. So 75% survival rate for mammals sounds pretty good to me.

  4. Prof FX Gumby, thanks for thoughtful response. Historically, poachers have been turned into gamekeepers worldwide. It was called agriculture. Sometimes it was coordinated, as in Egypt, but often not. As for the usefulness of remote bureaucracies, there are iron laws governing that, unfortunately. Which wouldn’t be a problem except that people believe they are getting something done.

    Local cooperatives are probably the only practical answer – which doesn’t mean they will happen.

    Regarding extirpation, the circumstances you describe ARE an animal or plant clinging. Then the question is, what is the best allocation of resources?

    About the PR problem: The chief difficulty is that people know that their “charismatic megafauna” are valued more than they are, and that makes them less willing to co-operate. The design perspective comes in here: The people are the only real change agents – whether they do change the course of things or not. This is worthy a longer discussion elsewhere.

  5. 5

    So your response to declining biodiversity is to give up and to hope the locals sort something out? That’s what I’m getting from your too easy dismissal of coordinated solutions and your vague appeal to “local cooperatives”.

    Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. In Ireland, there’s a region called the Burren of very high conservation importance, with a high diversity of plants and animals. The biodiversity of the Burren has been threatened by changes to traditional farming practices. In order to conserve the Burren, a number of measures have been put in place to move back to low intensity farming, including local cooperatives. A lot of the work is being organised by local people, but a lot of the funding is coming from the European Union. The funding is required to pay the farmers for conserving plants and animals, rather than intensive livestock rearing or land abandonment. This is what international support and coordination can do.

    I don’t know what you mean by “clinging on”, and whether that phrase is meant to apply equally to species with naturally limited distributions, species whose habitats have naturally decreased, or species whose habitats have been destroyed by people. You seem to be saying that is something is rare enough, why bother? Resource allocation is a serious topic, but would be better served by a more critical and informed analysis.

  6. 6

    I’m still not clear where the design perspective comes in here. If I have you right, you seem to be saying that the design perspective leads to the conclusion that the utilitarian valuing of nature is the only valid position. In other words what nature can do for humans, because we were specially designed to be apart from and above the rest of nature. The idea that nature is of intrinsic value is not part of the design perspective. Am I right here?

  7. Prof. Gumby, many people of Irish descent would be saddened to know that the Irish now need the Eurocracy to rescue their own environment. They never used to.

  8. No, you are not right. It means that local humans are the actual gateway to productive change. All the rest is paper and spin.

  9. “…a lot of the funding is coming from the European Union. The funding is required to pay the farmers for conserving plants and animals, rather than intensive livestock rearing or land abandonment. This is what international support and coordination can do.”

    So a taxpayer in Germany, say, pays a farmer in Ireland not to plant or raise and you think that’s a model for success?

  10. While we’re here, we looked up Burren, and honestly, we have never seen anything so dickless. It is an Irish history conservation site. So the Irish really need the Eurocracy to boot their [horses] to preserve it? No wonder all Europe is on the skids.

  11. Ok. So if the local humans, like in Africa, or in Ireland, can’t afford to protect the endangered species and habitats in their neighborhood without international help, the design solution is to say: oh well, too bad!

  12. Yes, that’s a model for success. Because it works. People in Europe care about preserving European environments. And in case you wondered: Germans love vacationing in Ireland.

  13. 13

    The question is who pays for and who benefits from biodiversity conservation. The alternatives are:

    1) All those who benefit from Burren biodiversity, including Burren locals, urban Ireland and the iconic German taxpayer, contribute towards its maintenance;

    2) Regulations are made restricting and mandating farming practices such that the local farmers pay the whole bill while everyone else freeloads;

    3) No one does anything and we lose a fantastic piece of local heritage.

    It’s the same as in the African scenario in the OP. Are the poor local Africans expected to bear the costs of conservation through restrictions on what they can hunt, what forests they can harvest, what land they can drain? Or are the rest of us going to help them find alternative enterprises and sustainable ways of managing the forests? Or are we just going to say “sod the rhinos, they’re just clinging on.”

  14. 14

    Yes, local humans are the key factor. But when the paper has lovely numbers on it and pictures of your favourite head of state, it’s not to be sniffed at. Or do you not care to do your fair share to conserve nature while reaping all the benefits?

    Anyway, how is this a design perspective rather than an evolutionary perspective? Or any such perspective at all? I thought I understood where you were coming from, but I have to admit, your meaning is still opaque to me.

  15. Prof FX Gumby, we are mutually incomprehensible. It’s no one’s fault. Just think: Some know nothing of the “iconic German taxpayer.” Some live in jurisdictions where there are no iconic taxpayers, just real ones. They love their country beyond anything some can imagine. And don’t easily understand why anyone would want much foreign “help.” This probably won’t help you much, but there’s always a chance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hgI8bta-7aw

  16. News:

    While we’re here, we looked up Burren, and honestly, we have never seen anything so dickless.

    Assuming “dickless” means what I think it does, I would be curious what you might consider “undickless” landwise?

    Your “point one” sounds more Darwinian than design, if we can eliminate it , it is clinging anyway, survival of the fittest and all that. On the other hand if design rules ,eliminating species that was designed is like destroying the Mona Lisa. A irreducibly complex nano machine poofed away. The Designer might not be pleased , maybe he liked that 25% of mammals, He went to the trouble of designing them after all.

  17. 17

    I’ve sworn off youtube, but I’ll guess it’s a clip of Rush playing “Take Off to the Great White North” or similar.

    I guess since you’re dead set against “foreign” help, you’re happy to leave the Africans to their own devices. Sod the rhinos then. Oh yes, and the children too.

    And fwiw, a hint: European Union.

  18. So you don’t see any problem with mass extinction?

  19. It’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Iconic for a place you never knew, not EU.

  20. Yes, but if local people don’t – what are others to do?

  21. 21

    Haven’t I just outlined some ideas what others can do? I’ve yet to hear any responses other than “Euroweenies” and hand-wringing.

  22. “Their own environment”.

    Who owns what environment, and for how long?

    I don’t see that anyone “owns” an environment. We live in one, sure, one that our forbears lived in, and our descendents will live in.

    Don’t we all have a duty of stewardship?

  23. Elizabeth Liddle, most people think ownership is important, and it is one of the few ways one can get people to accept responsibility. One of the few ways they can feel accountable for what happened. If foreign Eurocrats and UN-o-crats can just come in – well, then, THEY own it.

    The dialogue with Prof F.X. Gumby has, been a dialogue of the deaf because Gumby holds up as honorable (Ireland’s dependence on German taxpayers) what most Canadians would think despicable. That’s pure prejudice on the Canadians’ part, of course, and it is wholly irrelevant that Canadian banks are the strongest in the world and the Canadian economy needs no rescue – certainly not from Eurocrats. So there is nothing anyone needs to learn.

  24. O’Leary:

    Elizabeth Liddle, most people think ownership is important, and it is one of the few ways one can get people to accept responsibility. One of the few ways they can feel accountable for what happened.

    Yes indeed, I completely agree that people need a stake in what happens. But there are many stakeholders in any given piece of land, and I don’t see that responsibility should be shouldered entirely by those who happen to live there.

    If foreign Eurocrats and UN-o-crats can just come in – well, then, THEY own it.

    Well, no, they don’t.

    The dialogue with Prof F.X. Gumby has, been a dialogue of the deaf because Gumby holds up as honorable (Ireland’s dependence on German taxpayers) what most Canadians would think despicable.

    Not most of the Canadians I know. Canada has a fantastic tradition of burden-sharing, some logging companies excepted.

    That’s pure prejudice on the Canadians’ part, of course, and it is wholly irrelevant that Canadian banks are the strongest in the world and the Canadian economy needs no rescue – certainly not from Eurocrats. So there is nothing anyone needs to learn.

    Canada has Federal government as well as Provincial government. Europe is more decentralised than Canada, not less.

  25. 25

    O’Leary,

    It’s indeed been a dialogue of the deaf, because you can’t see past your Europhobia to my main point. Which is:

    Those who share the benefits must also share the costs

    Surely you don’t disagree?

    It works like this: we all benefit from biodiversity, even if it’s only a warm fuzzy feeling that there are elephants in the world. More significantly, we all benefit (to a greater or lesser extent depending on where you live) from the services provided by biodiversity, including pollination, carbon sequestration, erosion control, water purification, flood control, tourism. So why should the poor landowners pay all the costs?

    The Burren was a single, concrete example that you can’t get past for some reason. Farmers in Germany are also supported by Irish taxpayers to manage their lands sustainably.

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