Getting real about the conservation of threatened species

We need to save threatened and endangered species from extinction – it’s a fundamental value that is instilled in children. If humans are causing animals or plants to become extinct then it is our moral duty to something about it. But do all species really need to be saved?

If we stopped conserving pandas and left them to their own devices they would eventually die because of our impact on the planet. However what would the repercussions actually be? Pandas do not contribute to maintaining their ecosystem (that we know of) and they are very expensive to conserve due to their small habitat, strange diet and susceptibility to disease. With the funds currently being used to prolong pandas we could focus on conserving other species which are an integral part of their ecosystem, less expensive to manage and can return to stable populations.

Some species are a drain on resources to conserve: In the years 1989–1991, 54% of U.S. funding for conservation of threatened species was devoted to conservation of just 1.8% of all U.S. threatened species. Some conservation strategies such as translocating species can actually worsen ecosystems. We may conserve one species which actually preys on another threatened species. The rivet popper hypothesis likens the earth to a plane and individual species as rivets on the wings: you can lose some species that are not ‘key stone species’ as some are functionally redundant due to others who provide the same services but others are essential to the plane’s integrity. One very important thing to note is that we cannot know how many species we can lose before the wings fall off.


Joseph et al. have created an excellent model for prioritising conservation efforts through species importance, costs involved in conservation and the likelihood of long-term success which is a great improvement on most current biodiversity conservation plans. By scoring the species conservation proposed projects across multiple parameters such as efficiency, benefit, taxonomic distinctiveness, cost, probability of success and threat status, optimal conservation can be achieved with the resources available. This model works for species that are currently on threatened species lists however as Nicky Munro spoke about in a lecture it would be more productive to focus on minimising the initial threat – especially when they affect multiple species. Following Joseph et al.’s model some species would be allowed to become extinct.

There is a threshold of how many species can become extinct before dramatic changes are caused to the ecosystem. This depends on the extinct species not being keystone species or ecosystem engineers.

There is a threshold of how many species can become extinct before dramatic changes are caused to the ecosystem. This depends on the extinct species not being keystone species or ecosystem engineers.

My main point is: we cannot save every species and we do not need to save every species. If an extinction occurs in an area with high species richness then there is often little loss of function in the ecosystem (see figure 1). We should use Joseph et al.’s model to prioritise conservation efforts to key stone species in a way that will minimise costs and provide a high chance of success (similar to Pia Lentini’s lecture on planning a reserve system). Underscoring all our conservation efforts should be an acceptance that we will not save everything so let’s make the things that we do save the important ones not the cute ones.

About Biodiversity Conservation Blog

I am an Associate Professor at The Australian National University and convene a (very awesome) course called Biodiversity Conservation. Myself and students in the course contribute to this blog.
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2 Responses to Getting real about the conservation of threatened species

  1. Kien says:

    Thanks for the writing and points. I havent completed the threatened species practical (as in the Information Sheet) for such a reason. I find so hard to make a decision between the one that is critically endangered (i.e. Canberra Spider orchird) and the Mountain pygmy-possum.

    From online resources, Canberra Spider orchird is known endemic to Canberra only and there are only 250 plants left in Australia (30 in Mount Ainslie and 220 in Mount Majura). There is SO little academic literature studying on this and Department of Environment… site indicated no recovery plan yet for this species. On the other hand, we look at Mountain pygmy-possum that has had quite large amount of literature, studies etc. How do I get real about conservation of threatened species in this case?

  2. It is interesting that one of our recent guest lecturers from a government agency said that they effectively do what Joseph et al. suggest, albeit not in such as structured way. But, he recognised a danger in being overt about letting some species fend for themselves, because this might give government a licence to further reduce funding for threatened species.

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