On June 24th 2012 the global conservation movement lost a symbol of its continuing and much needed struggle to preserve the existence of the world’s rarest organisms. Lonesome George, the last of the Pinta Island Giant Tortoise, a subspecies of Galapagos Giant Tortoise died, leaving the world a little less biodiverse. Hopes of repopulating his kind became dire while he was still alive; several attempts were made throughout Lonesome George’s 40 year captivity to breed him with females of another close relating subspecies however this was to no avail. Perhaps the only consolation is that in recent year’s hybrids of the Pinta and Isabela Island tortoises were discovered on Volcano Wolf by scientists from Yale University. So somewhere out there the memory of Lonesome George’s now extinct subspecies live on.
But is this enough? Could the death of such an icon be the wakeup call that the global conservation movement really needs? The conservation organisation EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered) has developed a way to combine evolutionary lineage with the current IUCN endangered species red list to create a new way of identifying the species that need the most effort in order to save them. Using this method they have compiled lists of the 100 top endangered species of mammals, amphibians and birds and the top ten coral species. The usual suspects appear, Pandas, White Rhinos, but the shocking news is that staggering numbers on their lists receive limited or no attention. 66% of the mammals and 85% of the amphibians of the Edge species are being neglected by the global conservation effort. EDGE is attempting to raise awareness for all the species on their lists and rightly so, if these species continue to be overlooked then they will be lost to the world. This surely should broach the question then, why are all these biologically significant species being overlooked? I can’t help feel that it’s the culture surrounding conservation.
It seems like in order to engage the public with endangered species; the same images have been shown again and again. ‘Adorable’ animals that have suffered because of their destroyed habitats, after all no one wants a ‘cuddly’ panda to suffer now do they? But I think the overuse of this type of imagery has blinded the general public to the threat that so many other species face. Some cases are far dire than that of the Giant Panda, whose publicity has granted it a successful million dollar breeding program. Of course a task like this could never have been undertaken without vast donations. But when you consider that of the between 300 and 400 Pandas that have been bred in captivity in China only one (Xiang Xiang, meaning “Lucky”) has ever been released, only to die due to inability to fend for itself. Wouldn’t the millions that have been donated to a species that has to be artificially inseminated to keep its lineage going, be better spent on other organisms that have a greater chance to eventually survive on their own without human interference? Or organisms that are even more critically endangered?
Zoos all around the world are able to loan pandas from China, prices often go as far as $1 million for a year’s rental. The inherent problem however is that this money can go straight to the breeding programs, producing more Giant Pandas unfit for release into the wild. Over time it’s almost as if what started off as conservation has turned into commercial venture. Some might say that it has also become politically advantageous to artificially breed such a famous animal, as the Chinese government has gifted out many pandas. Most recently during its talks with the Lien Chen in 2005 when Taiwan was vying for independence, China gifted two Pandas to Taiwan.
Is it not immoral then that the donations of well-meaning people, who believe they are helping the conservation of an endangered species, are being spent on methods that will not help reintroduce said endangered species into the wild? And while this money goes on being wasted on creatures ineffectual at their own reproduction, there are hundreds of unique, evolutionary and biologically distinct species that are being neglected just because they don’t have the same publicity or appeal as the ‘cute and cuddly’. This is just my view on a global effort that needs re-evaluating.