Many threatened habitats and species need our attention. However, while our imagination may see infinite possibilities for their conservation, some thought would immediately suggest the need for biodiversity conservation planning. We cannot save all that need saving, for there are just too many on the endangered list and our resources are finite. Rather than dilute those resources over many different targets, a wiser approach would be to tag certain species and habitats as candidates for conservation and/or protection and concentrate our efforts on these select few. This would allow scarce human and financial resources to be spent for minimal biotic impoverishment and maximal biodiversity contribution to human well being. How can the most useful components of biodiversity be saved for current or future use? And how can such ethical considerations as our responsibility to other species and to future generations be incorporated into conservation priorities? Answering such questions requires one to have informed conservation priorities. The points that should be taken into account are listed below.
The very essence of biodiversity conservation lies with preserving the greatest possible variety of the world’s life forms and the habitats they occupy. Thus, the more significant members of this variety should receive greater attention. For example, given the choice between saving a species with many relatives and one with only a few, I would choose to save the more distinctive one. Consider it on a genetic level. The genus with fewer species has a comparatively smaller gene pool, and should a particular species become extinct, that would mean the loss of a significant portion of that gene pool, which may be irrecoverable. As opposed to a larger genus in which the genes are likely to be more evenly distributed throughout all species, and thus any loss may be a sustainable one.
Maintaining the highest number of species without considering their taxonomic position makes little sense, as a comparison of marine and terrestrial environments shows. Terrestrial environments contain at least 80 percent of the world’s total species, mainly because vascular plants and insects are so numerous on land–accounting for nearly 72 percent of all described species in the world–and so poorly represented in marine environments. However, the sea contains greater proportions of higher taxonomic units. Marine ecosystems contain representatives of some 43 phyla while terrestrial environments are home to only 28 phyla. The sea contains fully 90 percent of all classes and phyla of animals. Clearly, efforts to conserve the widest array of biodiversity must give attention to all levels of the taxonomic hierarchy.
Usefulness is a very important criterion when assessing bioconservation plans. No one opposed the widescale state-sponsored eradication of the smallpox virus and most people would agree that it is more important to conserve a subspecies of wild rice than a subspecies of “weed”. The same problem presents itself in habitat conservation. Often, the threatened habitat upstream from a settlement, which needs to be dammed to be saved, may be sacrificed over human needs. If that same one happened to be downstream, it’ likely that it would have been.
However, assessing usefulness begs two questions. One, useful for whom? Conservation of endangered species has obvious benefits for communities, nations, even the world at large, but the benefit is not identical for each group. From a global perspective, the conservation of a particular region’s biodiversity might help to regulate climate, influence the atmosphere’s chemical composition, and provide all of humanity with industrial products, medicines, and a source of genes for crop breeding. Locally, conservation may also provide people with fuel, clean water, game, timber, aesthetic satisfaction and important cultural symbols or resources.
Because the conservation benefits received by the local and global communities are not congruent, international and local priorities will also differ. To humanity at large, conserving tropical forests matters more than conserving arid deserts since the forests contain a tremendous variety of life and heavily influence global climate. Locally, however, the biodiversity of each region is equally valuable since it provides essential ecosystem services that local people rely upon. Neither perspective is necessarily the “correct” view of biodiversity; either–global or local, current or future–reflects an implicit value judgment. In such a situation, I would weigh the options equally before making an informed value judgement.
Two, inter-generation equity – whether or not we have right to sell the rights of those to come? What is not useful now may be useful later, if only because the means of unlocking its secrets has yet to be discovered. For example, 20th century crop scientists went all out to annihilate weeds like the hollywort which affected consumer crops. However, recent experiments by scientists at the Princeton University suggest that hollywort contains a powerful decongestant that could be very useful to those with blocked nasal passages. This happened in the same century. Who are we to destroy what may be the saviour of our future? Thus, I would support any conservation attempt with a wide array of scientific research revealing whether or not what I relegate has any glimpse of potential, however small it may be.
When considering the conservation of a particular species or habitat, it is also necessary to consider the impact of the conservation on the rest of the ecosystem. The ecosystems of the earth are in a delicate juxtaposition with the rest of nature. Any change in this delicate balance through a conservation attempt for one particular species or habitat may a have considerable detrimental effect on the other members of the ecosystem.
For example, lions are at the top of the food pyramid and being the major tertiary consumers are responsible directly or otherwise for the control of the other populations. One need only imagine the consequences of a misguided conservation attempt on the lions : an increased population of lions whose nutritional needs cannot be met by their usual prey. This results in over-preying and a loss of the middle order in a food chain leading to an abundance of primary consumers and consequent depopulation of the lions through starvation.
Thus, when considering any conservation, be it of a habitat or a species, I would consider the possible ramifications of the conservation and then decide which to conserve while trying not to interfere too greatly in the natural ecosystem.
In general, the threat to biological diversity is influenced by how widespread species are, how common they are over their range, and by such human pressures as harvesting, land conversion, and environmental pollution. The threats to species vary dramatically by region, and in each region, some habitats and/or species are more threatened than others are. In such a scenario, I would conserve in order of increasing threat and save the most endangered ones first.
For instance, Central America’s tropical rainforests are less threatened than the remaining fragments of tropical dry forest in that region. In such cases, I feel that the dry forests should receive the most attention although the rainforests contain more species as the rainforests have more time than the forests.
It is easier to save the habitat or species for which I can get more funding versus the one for which I get less. More money implies more effective conservation strategies and a greater likelihood of success. However, this is often public and/or state-sponsored funding. And such funding depends greatly on public perception of the conservation targets and how much interest they envisage in it. That interest translates into dollars and cents. This mercenary attitude may be deplorable, but it is a necessity. Increased funding for biodiversity conservation will not, by itself, slow biodiversity loss but it will pave the way for the policy and institutional reforms that are needed to create the conditions under which increased funding can be effective.
For example, contrast two habitats both under the threat of extinction; tropical rainforests and semi-arid desert. With the introduction of popular reading material as well as intense media hype, most people are aware of the rainforest plight. With over 200 trees being felled a day, one of the most precious ecosystems is in grave danger. But what most may not know, is that the semi-arid deserts of the sub-Saharan plain and South America are in an even greater danger of devastation. This ecosystem is no less valuable (containing an estimated 20 new species per hectare versus 25 for an average stretch of rainforest); but it lacks the popular support enjoyed by the rainforest. Unless some serious conservationists work hard to alter public opinion, this habitat is doomed! The same reason explains why the panda and tiger conservation acts have greater fame and popularity than more obscure ones like the American red treefrog campaign.
Thus when considering candidates for conservation, I would examine the marketability of the habitat or species in question to see which is likely to gather more public support as I know that that will mean greater funding. This will pave the way for the policy and institutional reforms which will create the conditions under which increased funding can be effective for conserving the requisite species and habitats.
These five factors – distinctiveness, benefit, impact, threat and funding – help make value judgments more explicit as conservation priorities are set as to which species or habitat need saving the most. Man has overstepped his station, in the web of life of which he is but a mere strand, causing such devastation worldwide. Such mop-up measures like conservation would be unnecessary if the problem had not arisen in the first place through exploitation. For a truly lasting solution, an attitude change is needed. Man needs to be more humble and go about his work without seeking to extend his hegemony over the entire planet. Through this way, lies the only true solution.