How much would you pay to save a species from becoming extinct? A thousand dollars, $1 million or $10 million or more? A new study shows that a subset of species -- in this case 841 to be exact -- can be saved from extinction for about $1.3 million per species per year, but only if conservation efforts are put in place immediately to ensure habitat protection and management, according to researchers that include a Texas A&M professor.
The international team of researchers includes scientists from the Max-Planck Odense Center at the University of Southern Denmark, Imperial College of London, Australia's University of Queensland, the American Bird Conservancy, the IUCN SSC Conservation Breeding Specialist Group, the International Species Information System, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and Burak Güneralp, research assistant professor at Texas A&M. The team's work is published in the current issue of Current Biology.
The researchers developed a "conservation opportunity index" using measurable indicators to quantify the possibility of achieving successful conservation of a species, both in its natural habitat and by establishing insurance populations in zoos. They computed the cost of, and opportunities for, conserving 841 species of mammals, reptiles, birds and amphibians listed by the Alliance for Zero Extinction or AZE as restricted to single sites and categorized as Endangered or Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.
The total cost: only $1.3 billion per year to safeguard all 841 species, truly a bargain basement price by any standard, the researchers note. Of this, a little over $1.1 billion per year would go towards conserving the species in their natural habitats and the rest for complementary management in zoos. "Although the cost seems high, safeguarding these species is essential if we want to reduce the extinction rate by 2020," said Prof. Hugh Possingham from the University of Queensland.
"When compared to global government spending on other sectors (such as U.S. defense spending, which is more than 500 times greater), an investment in protecting high biodiversity value sites is minor."
"AZE sites are arguably the most irreplaceable category of important biodiversity conservation sites," notes assistant professor Dalia A. Conde, lead author on the paper at the Max-Planck Odense Center at the University of Southern Denmark. "Conservation opportunity evaluations like ours show the urgency of implementing management actions before it is too late. It is imperative to rationally determine actions for species that we found to have the lowest chances of successful habitat and zoo conservation actions."
"Habitat loss and fragmentation caused by human activities including expansion of urban areas is a major factor putting at risk many of the species in the AZE list," adds Güneralp, co-author of the study. There are about 17,000 species that are now threatened with extinction, and there have been five mass extinctions -- including the one that killed the dinosaurs. Because of habitat loss and fragmentation, many scientists believe that we are now living during the sixth mass extinction period.
While the study indicated that 39 percent of the species scored high for conservation opportunities, it also showed that at least 15 AZE species are in imminent danger of extinction given their low conservation opportunity index. This low index is due to one or a combination of different factors such as: high probability of its habitat becoming urbanized, political instability in the site and/or high costs of habitat protection and management.
Additionally, the opportunity of establishing an insurance population in zoos for these 15 species is low, either due to high costs or lack of breeding expertise for the species. "Our exercise gives us hope for saving many highly endangered species from extinction, but actions need to be taken immediately and, for species restricted to one location, an integrative conservation approach is needed," says Prof. John E. Fa of Imperial College.
The paper states the importance of integrating protection of the places these particular species inhabit with complementary zoo insurance population programs. According to Onnie Byers, Chair of the IUCN SSC Conservation Breeding Specialist Group, "The question is not one of protecting a species in the wild or in zoos. The One Plan approach -- effective integration of planning, and the optimal use of limited resources, across the spectrum of management from wild to zoo -- is essential if we are to have a hope of achieving the Aichi Biodiversity Targets."
Nate Flesness, scientific director of the International Species Information System, stresses that "we want to thank the more than 800 zoos in 87 countries which contribute animal and collection data to the International Species Information System, where the assembled global data enables strategic conservation studies like this."
Markus Gusset of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums added that "Actions that range from habitat protection to the establishment of insurance populations in zoos will be needed if we want to increase the chances of species' survival."
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