The Economics of Endangered Species Rescues

Anthropocene. The era of human dominance. Many commentators agree that anthropocene is a proper name for the current geological era (formally we still live in the Holocene). Human activities are the all-dominant factor influencing natural systems all over the Earth. Climate change, mass extinction of species, biodiversity loss, peak everything, widespread soil degradation and, as a result, erosion and desertification… There are many phenomena caused, at least partly, by human activities, especially over the last 2 centuries, that are critical for the state of the Earth ecosystem. A phenomenon of particular “media potential” is the continued loss of species across the world. Just think of the media buzz around Lonesome George. Extinction of whole species mobilizes many people to action. The question, however, is whether the actions finally undertaken are always sensible. One may call this the economics (and ethics) of endangered species rescue.

Let us begin with a simple, but important question: why have we tried to save, e.g., Lonesome George? And, even more importantly, why Chelonoidis nigra abingdonii (the tortoise species Lonesome George belonged to) and not some other species?

Lonesome George, the last known individual of Chelonoidis nigra abingdonii.

All attempts to rescue a species from extinction – be it the Tasmanian tiger, the Pinta Island tortoise, the Jangtse dolphin or the scarce large blue, or any other endangered species for that matter – have a common goal. Implicitly or explicitly, people feel responsible for the disappearance of species. We also feel that it is sad to lose them, especially since we believe to have the means to rescue them. This mix of “moral obligation”, a feeling of loss and the conviction that we are able to straighten out our own wrongs leads us to sometimes desperate actions in the interests of the remaining individuals of endangered animal (and, although much less frequently, also plant) species.

Mostly, our choices regarding which species to rescue are not led by rationality. We are not able to save every species from extinction, partly because we do not even know all species living on this planet. We are slower at finding and describing new ones than they are at dying. But even if we focus on known, documented species, we are not able to save them all. We do not have the resources to do it. These species are in danger often due to our own activities, but it is unreasonable and naive to believe that it is possible to abandon or modify all of them without threatening the survival and well-being of members of our own species. Given this, it may be a good thing to follow the advice of some commentators who state that it is not a “we vs. Nature” game. Rather, we are an integral part of Nature, including the forces of evolution. One could view the interferences of human activity with the Earth ecosystem as another source of selection pressure on species. This is, paradoxically, a rather holistic point of view, which, however, has anthropocentric consequences: if we accept the fact that we do change Nature and that this is not a “bad thing” per se, the consequence is that we should assess our interferences with ecosystems from the perspective of their usefulness to us. In other words, we should adopt an environmental economics ethical perspective.

This leads to the question I already asked above: Why did we attempt to rescue Chelonoidis nigra abingdonii and not some other species? Or the ivory-billed woodpecker, which “consumed” some US-$15 million, much more than many other, less charismatic but equally endangered species? Alas, the answer is not, because they are important in any relevant sense. Lonesome George, who had not lived in the wild for some 40 years before he died last year, was a member of a species that was endemic to the Pinta Island, one of the Islas Galápagos. So, the ecosystem of which his species was once an integral part has had much time to accommodate to the loss. It already is a different ecosystem. Furthermore, on the neighbouring islands there are many other related tortoise sub-species, which easily could fill the ecosystemic niche. There really was nothing special about Lonesome George and the Pinta Island tortoise. But he was member of a so-called charismatic species, received huge media interest and attracted funds. It was not a rational decision based on arguments such as importance for ecosystem intactness that led to all the (futile) attempts to find a mate for Lonesome George. And such is the case of many popular endangered species whose “rescue” consumes many resources – money, time and knowledge of the involved scientists, media attention – without really paying off, even if successful. In short: from an economic point of view Lonesome George was a “resource black hole”, a wastage. Even if we had succeeded and saved him, this would be of little tangible benefit. It is a great thing if we can rescue a species from extinction, but is it per se really a sufficient reason to actually do it?

An alternative to the Lonesome George or charismatic species approach would be to look at ecosystem services. This is the name environmental economists and ecologists have given to all the benefits we draw from ecosystems – starting with more tangible and even marketable goods such as timber or wild fruits, through pollination and hydro-regulation to such intangible, psychological services as beauty. Virtually every ecosystem provides us with services (and, for that matter, disservices). In many cases, species extinction and biodiversity loss lead to a decrease in ecosystem service yields and security. To rescue species which contribute significantly to ecosystem stability/resilience and/or provide ecosystem services themselves is reasonable up to the point when the benefits of rescuing are equal to the costs. This limiting point is not, in most cases, clear-cut, so there should always be room for some arbitrariness and flexibility. But to rescue a species simply because it gathers attention due to its charisma, even if their ecosystemic value is marginal and no matter the cost, is not reasonable. That is the reason why economists and ecologists are trying to assess the value of ecosystems – it is an attempt to show which ecosystems/species/populations are worth rescuing and which should better be abandoned.

It would be great if we had the resources to rescue all species and ecosystems on this planet, all the Lonesome Georges, Pyrenean ibexes, dodos and aurochses. But we do not. We have to accept that there are trade-offs to be made and species to be abandoned. Furthermore, we have to accept that we are a part of Nature and that we are not morally obliged to rescue every species we have driven to extinction. This is evolution. Species emerge, species die. It is not per se important whether the reasons are anthropogenic or “natural” (whatever that means). But it is important whether the loss of a species can be absorbed or not. And that should be the criterion for rescuing species.

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