By Brian Palmer
Tuesday, March 15, 2011; E03
I'd like to "adopt" an endangered species for my daughter's birthday. She'd probably prefer a bear, either polar or panda, since they make the cutest plush toys. But which animal should I sponsor to make the greatest impact?
Your question addresses one of the great controversies in the environmentalist community: conservation triage. Researchers estimate that we're losing as many as 27,000 species every year. Triage advocates argue that we have no legitimate hope of saving all of the world's endangered creatures, so we ought to think seriously about how to allocate our resources for the greatest effect. Others find this position both defeatist and hopelessly theoretical, and point out that few triagists would be willing to recommend specific candidates for extinction.
Four factors typically inform triage theory. The first is value. Some species exhibit unique genetic, anatomic or behavioral traits. If these creatures were to die off, a branch of the evolutionary tree would die with them. Other "valuable" animals have prized economic, cultural or even aesthetic qualities. (It's apparently okay to talk about cuteness, even among conservationists.)
The second factor is the biodiversity benefit. Conservationists like to protect so-called keystone species, on which entire ecosystems rely. Pollinators and coral are classic examples. In other cases, eliminating the threat to an "umbrella species" would help others. For instance, cordoning off a section of the beach to protect a particular nesting bird may also benefit turtles and seals.
Probability of success is the third factor: What are the odds that our efforts will work? It's not always clear what's ailing an animal. We know that a fungus is partly responsible for amphibians' massive, worldwide die-off. But scientists disagree over the reasons for the outbreak. Some think that drugging the frogs may save them. Others think climate change has made them more susceptible to disease, and solving this fungus won't solve the larger problem. Until we can get to the root of the issue, the impact of your charitable giving around this issue is uncertain.
In theory, you're supposed to multiply these three factors - species value, biodiversity benefits and probability of success - and divide the product by the fourth factor: cost. The result should tell you which animal to save.
In practice, however, you'll find it difficult to boil all these factors down into a single ranking. It's easier to focus instead on a few especially good candidates per factor.
If you'd like to save a branch of the evolutionary tree, consider the Brothers Island tuatara, a small New Zealand reptile. While merely vulnerable, not endangered, it's one of only two species remaining in its order.
Endangered species with unique traits include the shrewlike Cuban solenodon, one of the few mammals to inject venom through its teeth. If you'd prefer something a little less, well, hideous for your child, consider the culturally, economically and aesthetically significant Asian elephant. It has profound connections to Hindu traditions and helps villagers work in areas that are inaccessible to machinery. EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered) is an organization to support if you're interested in the most unique creatures.
A good resource for high-impact donation strategies is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Endangered Species Program, which has developed prioritized action lists for endangered species, along with the cost of each action. (Check out example plans for the Florida panther or the red wolf.) You could pick a high-priority, low-cost action item, such as protecting habitat or developing a disease prevention plan, then donate your money to the private conservation organization that has partnered with Fish and Wildlife to accomplish it. Your local FWS office can help direct you to conservation groups.
Maybe you like long shots. If so, go to the IUCN Red List and search for species that are critically endangered (3,565 worldwide) or extinct in the wild (63).
Or think locally. The Red List includes 8,884 endangered species in the United States, and you can search for them by state. The Lantern is particularly fond of the black-footed ferret, which has come back from extinction and now feasts on unsuspecting prairie dogs in the Western states. Once you find a good candidate, look for local groups or university researchers working to help it survive, many of whom are desperate for donations of any size.
The Lantern understands the appeal of trying to save a single species, but general habitat preservation will typically get you the most bang for your buck. This usually means buying up and reforesting degraded land. You might want to focus on biodiversity hot spots, where some of the world's most important species live. If you're looking to give your child something tangible, SavingSpecies.org will send you a Google Earth image of your habitat purchase to show your kids the reforestation process. In general, your best bet for a birthday donation is to stick with reputable organizations such as major conservation groups, universities and government-sponsored programs.
It's worth pointing out that no species-saving project is guaranteed to succeed, but there are reasons to be optimistic. Captive breeding organizations such as the Peregrine Fund, for example, nursed the peregrine falcon from DDT-induced near extinction just decades ago to removal from the endangered species list. Other success stories abound.
Finally, if your child absolutely must have the plush toy, pick up a Golden Lion tamarin. Scientists aren't above using these so-called "mascot" or "charismatic" species to rope in donors.
The Green Lantern is produced by the Web magazine Slate and can be read at www.slate.com. It thanks Felicity Arengo of the American Museum of Natural History, Resit Ackakaya of Stony Brook University, Madeleine Bottrill of the University of Queensland, Georgina Mace of Imperial College London, John Marzluff of the University of Washington, Stuart Pimm of Duke University, Phil Rainbow of the Natural History Museum in London, Rod Sayler of Washington State University and David Wilcove of Princeton University for their assistance on this column.