Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Are Conservation Efforts Harming Rare Species?

ResearchBlogging.orgSince today is Earth Day, I've got all kinds of green, eco-friendly, conservation-type thoughts jumbling around in my head. I keep reading articles about how some rare alligator has a little hope or how some big rare fish got eaten, and thinking positively about the press surrounding our environment. All these daily, constant reminders about the status of species on the verge of collapse - this kind of awareness has got to be helping conserve those speices, right? But then I stumbled upon a PLoS ONE article that completely soured my mood.

Poached Tiger Skins

Rarity of Tigers raises the value of their skins
via the anthropogenic Allee effect

The study looked at how rarity of a species affected its value to people. For years, scientists have looked at how abundance of a species affects its chances for survival. While it's obvious that low numbers are tough to overcome (the simple math of finding mates when there's a limited number of choices), what they've hypotheesized is that being rare has an even greater negative effect on a species: it makes it more valuable. In what is called the anhropogenic Allee effect, the lower the number of individuals there are in a species, the more they likely to go extinct by human causes. The obvious way this might happen is that rarity raises the cost of products/trophies/etc of that species, and the more expensive something is, the more people will do to attain it, like illegal poaching. But it's not just the poachers or exotic pet dealers that we have to worry about - it's the animal lovers, too.

increased tourism to parks, for exam-
ple, increases litter and pollution in
key habitats for at-risk species

That's because the rarer a species is, the more people who want to see it. Interest funnels tourists (who aren't always 100% careful with the environment) to marginal habitats where the disturbance they can have exacerbates problems and fuels tourism ventures to areas that are otherwise undisturbed by people who may or may not have conservation goals at heart. Basically, the more people value a species, the more people pay to get up close - whether it hurts the animals to do so or not.

But as of yet, scientists have been unsuccessful in determining whether an anthropogenic Allee effect actually exists. Mainly, they have had trouble designing experiments which show that people - not just a small subset, but a diverse, large group - inherently value rare creatures more than common ones. There are all kinds of reasons why people might value one animal more than another. Many, for example, are drawn to cute, furry creatures more than slimy or scaly ones. I would expect that many people, thus, would value a puppy more than a black widow, or a bunny rabbit more than a venemous snake.

So the researchers designed an ingenius experiment to look at the value people place on rare animals. They set up a website allowing people to choose to download slideshows of various groups of animals. One slideshow was of rare species - the other of common ones, and they were randomly placed on the page. However, unbenounced to the participants, the slideshows never actually downloaded. Upon clicking the link to a slideshow, an upload progress bar opened, and the program began recording how long people were willing to wait for their images before giving up and canceling the download.

The study looked at a few different variables. One was which slideshow people preferred - the one with rare or the one with common animals. This preference shows value placed on one group or the other. By seeing how long people would wait for the slideshow, the researchesr had another indicator of value, as people are willing to invest more time in something they want more.

The results from over 2500 visitors were clear. Over 60% of the participants chose to download the rare animals slideshow if they clicked only once on one slideshow. Of those that clicked to download the shows more than once, slighly more than half clicked the rare one first if they clicked both, and if they clicked only one show multiple times, 67% were trying to get the rare one. And if that weren't enough, people were willing to wait significantly longer for the rare species slideshow than the common species one, espcially for those participants who were paying full attention to the download (cancelling in 6 min or less - the time it took for the "loading" bar to fill up). And the preferences for the rare pics were irregardless of age, education level, or gender.

These results strongly support the idea that rare species, just by being rare, are valued more. This opens these endangered species to the possible damages of antropogenic Allee effects. As the authors write, "The particular threat this effect poses on rare species is sufficiently disturbing for conservationists to use caution when disclosing rarity, as well as to begin a dialogue about the measures that can be adopted to protect rare species from this new threat."

For me, these results really made me think about the way in which we go about conserving threatened species. Simply telling the world about endangered animals in the hopes they will want to save them isn't going to cut it - and it's even possible that alerting the masses to those precious creatures' rarity even hurts them. Of course, we can't just go about conserving species in secret, either. Without public support we simply can't afford the kinds of projects that are necessary to actually save creatures. This study highlights the tightrope that those interested in protecting and restoring our ecosystems walk. There's a fine line between promoting a species so that it can be protected and making a species so valuable that people will use any means possible to profit from its popularity. We have to be careful what we wish for - by increasing a endangered species' popularity, we might just be sealing its fate.

Angulo, E., & Courchamp, F. (2009). Rare Species Are Valued Big Time PLoS ONE, 4 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005215


WhySharksMatter said...

What an interesting idea! The flip side of the coin, though, is that when people don't know at all that certain species are important to the ecosystem (or threatened at all), there is no public desire to save them from those who already harming them... like, for example, many species of sharks.

Paper Hand said...

What a clever experimental design. :-)

BEST said...

Nice One... I enjoyed reading this....


Anonymous said...

Another amazing experiment on how people value rarity species in a zoo: