- Studies have found that unchecked deforestation and species extinctions will directly impact human well-being.
- Even little-known species can provide surprising benefits for humans, such as drugs that combat cancer.
- The benefits of protecting species may not be immediately evident, but the countless ecosystem services many animals and ecosystems provide make wildlife conservation worth the time and money.
In the 1990s, researchers in India began noticing something strange in the skies. South Asian Gyps vultures, once numbering several millions, were dropping dead rapidly. In less than a decade, populations of long-billed, slender-billed and oriental white-backed vultures in India plummeted from around 40 million birds in the 1990s to fewer than 100,000 birds, crashing by more than 99.9 percent in some places.
The cause of their death was a veterinary drug called diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug routinely given to livestock. Once the livestock died, the vultures fed on their carcasses, and consequently died of kidney failure. The once-common vultures swiftly began spiraling towards extinction.
For some of us, vultures may seem inconsequential. They lack the charisma of vibrant peacocks, or the charm of sound-mimicking artists like lyrebirds or African grey parrots. They are also not the most attractive of birds. So why are conservationists rushing to save the last remaining vultures?
As scavengers, vultures keep our ecosystems clean and healthy. Once their populations collapsed, it had a domino effect, impacting many other species, as well as people’s health and cultural beliefs.
In India, for instance, vultures help dispose off the carcasses of livestock that are otherwise not eaten. India’s Parsi community does not bury or cremate their dead, and depends on vultures to cleanly consume and dispose of the bodies. Without vultures, the Parsis have been struggling to find alternative ways of respectfully taking care of their dead.
The human toll of wildlife declines
The absence of vultures also hit the livestock-carcass dumps. Once the vultures declined, feral dog and rat populations filled the void and took over the dumps. In doing so, they brought with them numerous transmissible diseases like rabies, anthrax and plague, resulting in health costs of around $34 billion. The birds’ demise caused an insidious series of changes, mostly negative.
Because vultures help keep our environment healthy, saving them may seem like the right thing to do. But what about a critically endangered wildflower in the remote jungles of Gabon, or an endangered mussel species in a far-away stream? Sure, scientists might find them appealing or useful for science, or we might want charismatic species like elephants to persist in perpetuity. Some of us may even think that it is our moral obligation to protect all creatures alive. But does it really make sense to save all species heading towards extinction? After all, saving endangered species is expensive.
A 2012 study published in Science estimated that it would cost more than $65 billion annually to protect just birds around the world. Protecting other land and aquatic animals and plants would cost much more. But extinctions are natural, as evidenced by countless species known only from fossils and museum specimens.
In fact, the past five mass extinctions — occurring over an average cycle of 26 million years — have wiped out entire families of animals and plants, including the dinosaurs. The mass die-offs dramatically changed the course of life on our planet. Now, scientists say that we are in the middle of the sixth mass extinction, driven by humans. If extinctions are indeed natural, then should we pour in so much money to save all possible endangered animals and plants?
Perhaps, the money would be better spent on alleviating poverty, hunger and diseases around the world. But human troubles and species extinctions are not mutually exclusive.
Studies have found that unchecked deforestation and species extinctions can directly impact human well-being. The demise of Gyps vultures and the resulting spread of infectious diseases in India is one such example. Spread of other diseases like the fatal Ebola virus have also been linked to the clearing of forests and bushmeat hunting.
Moreover, scientists have found increasing evidence linking the loss of species diversity in ecosystems to an increase in the transmission of pathogens and incidence of diseases in humans. For example, a review study published in 2010 in Nature found a strong link between low bird diversity in the United States and an increased risk of West Nile encephalitis, a mosquito-transmitted virus, in humans.
Many species even act as indicators of environmental health. Their decline can indicate that something is wrong with the region in which they — and humans — live. One of the most famous examples is how the decline of bald eagles in North America exposed contamination of the environment with DDT, a pesticide used to control mosquitoes and other insects.
Endangered species can also be of economic value to local communities that share their homes with animals and plants. Protected areas meant for charismatic species like tigers and gorillas, for instance, can attract substantial tourism. In some protected areas designed to conserve endangered wildlife, governments and conservation agencies have come up with strategies that also improve the lives of local communities.
According to a 2006 report released by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), increased tourism to community-managed wildlife parks in Namibia has resulted in greater wages for local communities and increased profits for community-owned enterprises. In some instances, conservation agencies also support rural infrastructure around protected areas, establishing health care centers, schools, and drinking water schemes. However, the answer to whether protected areas truly reduce poverty in local societies is still murky and complicated, and in need of more rigorous assessment.
Not all endangered animals are charismatic, though. The conservation of attractive animals like tigers may lend subsequent protection to their lesser-known prey species and other animals and plants that happen to share their protected habitats. However, protected areas focusing only on charismatic species could undermine chances for unfamiliar, “uglier,” or more ordinary species that live outside of those areas.
But little-known species can bear surprising benefits for humans. The pharmaceutical industry, for example, owes much of their drugs to the discovery of natural components in the wild. One such famous group of medicinally useful trees is the yew tree, which yields an anti-cancer compound called Taxol, routinely used to treat breast and ovarian cancer. Before the discovery of Taxol from the bark of the Pacific yew tree (Taxus brevifolia) by a U.S. National Cancer Institute Program in the 1960s, the yew tree was considered a weed tree and was regularly destroyed during logging operations, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).
Like the yew tree, the rosy periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus), found on the island of Madagascar, produces compounds effective in treating diseases like leukemia. Nearly driven extinct by habitat loss, the rosy periwinkle rebounded after scientists discovered its medicinal properties. There are countless other species in the wild that have been sources of antibiotics, pain killers and blood thinners for our pharmacies. As the U.S. FWS notes, “the biochemistry of unexamined species is an unfathomed reservoir of new and potentially more effective substances.” And it is worth saving them for unforeseen uses.
But the discovery of such life-saving compounds from the wild can be a double-edged sword. While it can stimulate protection of the species that produce these compounds, it can also lead to over-exploitation. The Himalayan yew tree (Taxus contorta), for instance, is on the brink of extinction due to over-harvesting for medicinal use and collection for fuel.
The cash value of nature
Many endangered species do not necessarily make compounds directly useful for us, or aren’t charismatic enough to attract tourists. Does it then make economic sense to protect them?
To answer this question, scientists have been trying to find out what nature is worth. Their monetary valuation of species goes beyond the value of timber, land, or tourism, which are relatively easier to measure. Instead, scientists have been trying to estimate the economic value of “ecosystem services”: services that nature provides to human communities, such as pollination by insects and flood mitigation by mangroves.
In 2010, Nicholas Calderone of Cornell University found that honeybees and other insects pollinated nearly $30 billion worth of crops in the U.S. like apples, almonds, cherries, oranges, asparagus, broccoli, carrots and onions. Growing just almonds in California, for instance, requires around 1.7 million bee hives.
So honeybees and insects keep the cost of pollination down, and bring good, healthy food to our plates. However, the global honeybee population is facing dramatic declines across the U.S., Europe and parts of Asia due to a number of reasons from pesticides to parasites. In 2014-2015, for example, farmers in the U.S. have reported losses of over 40 percent of bee colonies.
Ecosystems like mangroves reduce the impact of hurricanes and cyclones, and protect our coastlines. Mangrove forests are home to a vast variety of species and support commercial fisheries by acting as fish nurseries. They also attract tourists. These goods and services, according to a report by WWF, was estimated to be worth $186 million each year as of 2000.
Human attempts to circumvent nature’s ecosystem services by creating self-sustaining environments, have often proved unsuccessful. For instance, Biosphere 2 was built in the 1990s in Arizona, largely funded by billionaire Edward Bass. The experimental world of Biosphere 2 had miniature versions of a “rainforest,” an “ocean,” a “mangrove wetland,” a “savannah grassland,” a “desert” and an “agricultural system.”
A closed system, Biosphere 2 was originally designed to investigate if life could be re-created, especially on other planets like Mars. The first group of men and women remained sealed inside Biosphere 2 for two years between 1991 and 1993. They ate the food produced by their “agricultural system” and breathed in recycled oxygen. But the experiment quickly failed.
The eight-member crew remained hungry most of the time. The rate of respiration was much faster than that of photosynthesis by plants, and oxygen inside the chamber fell dramatically, while carbon dioxide rose sharply. In fact, carbon dioxide levels inside Biosphere 2 were 12 times that of the outside, while oxygen levels were down to those at an altitude of 17,000 feet. In the end, Biosphere 2 was a disaster and underlined how reliant we still are on the natural world.
But how do you place a monetary value on a service like clean air, pollination or protection of our coastlines? The process of economic valuation is complicated, and largely unreliable, environmental journalist George Monbiot argues in an essay.
“By pricing and commodifying the natural world and then taking the obvious next step – establishing a market in “ecosystem services” – accounting has the unintended consequence of turning the biosphere into a subsidiary of the economy,” Monbiot writes. “Forests, fish stocks, biodiversity, hydrological cycles become owned, in effect, by the very interests – corporations, landlords, banks – whose excessive power is most threatening to them. In some cases the costing of nature looks like a prelude to privatisation.”
Monetizing nature is tricky. For some of us, though, saving species is about doing the right thing morally and ethically. We love nature, and we like to spend time outdoors. Nature has inspired countless artists, writers, musicians, and artists. But if the age-old argument of saving nature for the sake of nature is not convincing enough, we should perhaps care about endangered species simply because our well-being depends on them.
Benefits of protecting species may not be immediately evident. But it does make economic and ecological sense to protect species from becoming extinct. If we value our health, our ability to breathe in clean air and drink clean water, it makes sense to save species — for their sake, and for ours.