- By simply paying their taxes, Americans are helping protect some of Earth’s most threatened and charismatic animals. But these vital funds are in jeopardy due to President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, which includes deep cuts to species conservation programs.
- Elephants, tigers, rhinos, great apes, and marine turtles are all protected by Acts of Congress, from which came grant programs administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
- Trump’s proposed budget would slash the funding for these programs by nearly half, from $12 million to $7 million. For African elephants, this would mean $1.5 million in 2019, down from this year’s $2.5 million, which was already spread thin.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
As a conservation scientist, people often ask me, “What can I do to help save vanishing species?”
In the U.S., you already do something when you pay your taxes. The current budget for multinational species conservation funding is $12 million — that’s 3.6 cents per American citizen (assuming a population of 330 million), or about 10 cents per year contributed by each federal tax-paying American.
However you look at it, Americans are helping protect some of Earth’s most threatened and charismatic animals. Now these vital funds are in jeopardy due to President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, which includes deep cuts to species conservation programs (see pages 34-35).
Elephants, tigers, rhinos, great apes, and marine turtles are all protected by Acts of Congress. Acts are statutes based on bills or resolutions that have been passed by both the House and Senate majorities and were signed by the U.S. president. The African Elephant Conservation Act was the first to be established in 1988, in response to heavy poaching of elephants for their ivory. It was followed by the Rhino and Tiger Conservation Act of 1994, the Asian Elephant Conservation Act of 1997, the Great Ape Conservation Act of 2000, and, most recently, the Marine Turtle Conservation Act of 2004. From all of these Acts stemmed grant programs administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
Dozens of field-based conservation teams apply for — and rely on — these funds each year. Their applications are rigorously assessed by review panels. I know this for a fact, because I have been on both ends as a recipient of funding and as a recent Science and Technology Policy Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) assigned to USFWS. I sat in on four review panels last year for African elephants, African rhinos, marine turtles, and great apes.
I assisted with these grant proposal reviews by looking up applicants’ past performance histories. That included examining whether or not applicants met reporting deadlines and achieved their goals, as well as ensuring that their proposed and actual budget expenditures matched up. How the applicants measured success, the challenges they experienced, their teamwork with others (including government partners and NGOs), and the involvement of local people in their conservation efforts also factored in to these grant-making decisions.
Years before, I was working with a project that received its first award ($37,000) from the African Elephant Conservation Fund in 2011 and continues to be supported by this fund: the Southern Tanzania Elephant Program (STEP)*.
“Without this source of funding, we’d be in dire straits,” says Dr. Trevor Jones, STEP’s director, whose team includes more than 20 Tanzanian nationals and works across two landscapes vitally important for elephants in East Africa. “The funds support co-existence projects that help keep elephants out of farmers’ fields in non-lethal ways; ranger patrols that improve security for elephants, other wildlife and people; and field and scientific training for our team and for rangers.”
Other initiatives supported through these species programs include technologies such as thermal imagery, used to count and observe elephants at night in Central Africa, where elephants have become increasingly nocturnal to avoid people and the acoustic noise associated with mining and oil exploration; canine units that equip rangers with dogs trained to detect illicit wildlife parts such as rhino horn and pangolin scales at roadblocks and airports; and tagging of rhinos and sea turtles that enables long-term monitoring of individuals.
Grantees of the Great Ape and African Elephant Conservation Funds, especially, often work in the challenging context of illicit or suspect mining operations, where they use USFWS support to establish additional ranger posts, collect intelligence, boost law enforcement, and engage with local stakeholders. Reducing by-catch of sea turtles in fishing gear and surveying nesting females and their eggs are two activities supported by the Marine Turtle Conservation Fund.
All of the species funds cultivate conservation values and interest by supporting environmental education in schools and organizing visits to national parks for adults and children. Often these programs fund what no other funding bodies will support: namely, the unglamorous. For example, basic infrastructure like rangers’ quarters and field-ready vehicles. Beneficiaries of these programs include reputable global organizations such as the Wildlife Conservation Society, The Ocean Foundation, and the International Rhino Foundation, but also small and impactful projects such as Wildlife Connection in Tanzania and the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project in Rwanda.
The USFWS officers who administer these programs are medal-worthy and work around the clock to support projects that embody value for money. I was lucky to interact with them during my time as a AAAS fellow. I can vouch that they’ve sacrificed their personal lives to devote themselves to these species and their continued survival in the wild.
Yet Trump’s proposed budget would slash the funding for species programs by nearly half, from $12 million to $7 million. For African elephants, this would mean $1.5 million in 2019, down from this year’s $2.5 million, which was already spread thin. Last year, 13 elephant conservation projects in nine countries were supported. The great ape program awarded $3.2 million to 41 projects in 18 range countries in Africa and Asia while the marine turtle program used its $2.2 million to fund 53 projects in 38 countries.
“The loss of USFWS funding would be a huge blow,” says Dr. Sarah Maisonneuve, founder and director of Wildlife Connection. “It would severely cripple our efforts to achieve the sustained, local support for conservation that is so essential to elephants’ and other animals’ survival in the wild. These funds support our park visitation program for local people, the delivery of our conservation education curriculum in schools, tools for reducing elephant crop-raiding on farms, and outreach efforts that engage people as genuine partners in conservation.”
The potential cuts to species funds come at a time when populations of African elephants are down to less than 420,000 and Asian elephants likely less than 40,000; when wild tigers number fewer than 4,000, African rhinos number 25,000 at most, and Asian rhinos, like tigers, are fewer than 4,000. Our closest living relatives are fast declining, with fewer than 300,000 chimpanzees and 20,000 bonobos left, while gorillas and orangutans number some 100,000 each. Marine turtles face compounded threats from fishing, plastic pollution, and climate change. We really need all hands on deck — not slashed budgets for badly needed programs supported by less than one nickel per U.S. American per year.
The American public insisted on saving these species from extinction. Please ask your representatives to bring attention to this issue so that the already small $12-million budget of the Multinational Species Conservation Fund is not reduced. Elephants, rhinos, tigers, great apes, and marine turtles deserve your few cents.
Katarzyna Nowak is a conservation scientist, currently a fellow with The Safina Center in New York and a research associate of Zoology and Entomology at the University of the Free State, Qwaqwa campus, South Africa. She’s based on the Front Range in Colorado. Follow her on Twitter @katzyna.
*Because of conflicts of interest (her association with the project), Nowak was not present when STEP’s 2017 proposal was discussed and reviewed by USFWS for an award from the African Elephant Conservation Fund. Importantly, as a fellow, she was not involved in the scoring of proposals, which was carried out by members of review panels.