The tough decision of which species to save from extinction

Roughly 1 million species of wildlife face extinction worldwide, according to a recent United Nations report. Ecologist and author Rebecca Nesbit joins Geoff Bennett to discuss the ethics and decision-making process behind figuring out which species to save.

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  • John Yang:

    This week, a major United Nations Wildlife Conference enacted significant protections to numerous vulnerable species targeted by poachers. Earlier, UN report said, there are roughly one million species around the world facing extension. With so much wildlife in need and resource is limited. Difficult choices have to be made. Geoff Bennett spoke with Rebecca Nesbit, an oncologist and author for Tickets Ark, From Wasps to Whales, How do we choose what to save?

  • Geoff Bennett:

    To start, give us a sense of some of the less popular species that are integral to an ecosystem but that aren't getting the funding, and the resources, and the research you think they deserve.

  • Dr. Rebecca Nesbit, Ecologist:

    There's all sorts of species that either we ignore or even we hate. I think of wasps. Common yellowjackets, for example, that lots of people really despise. But they are playing important roles such as they help with pest control. We have got lots of caterpillars, for example, that eat our crops and it's — various species of wasps will control those caterpillars. So we can really direct benefits from the species that we actively disliked.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    So what is an ethical way to make a decision about which species to save?

  • Dr. Rebecca Nesbit:

    It's is a really complex decision that we need to make each time. And sometimes, we're talking about extinctions. Sometimes, we're just talking about what's happening in a local area. So we're not necessarily going to lose a species to extinction but we're just going to ignore it and let the populations decline.

    The kind of ways we can think about are what is that species do? We could think about the species' role in the wider ecosystem, for example. I'm going to think of an ecosystem that stores a lot of carbon. We all know what problem we're facing with climate and how important it is to store carbon. So if we were to think of wanting to use an area for forest to have a lot of trees to store the carbon, then we could be taking that reasoning that we want to prioritize species that will create an ecosystem that stores carbon. But that's one possible way.

    And another way we could take this question is, well, who decides? At the moment, a lot of conservation has been decided by a very small number of people. Whereas, we could bring far more people into this debate because we have, for example, around the world indigenous societies relying on nature, protecting nature, and not having their voices listen to. So part of how we decide is who do we bring into that conversation?

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And consider the panda, for instance, it's a species that gets a lot of attention, a lot of funding. A few months ago, I spoke with Melissa Songer who works at the National Zoo here in Washington, D.C., about the overall conservation effort. Here's what she had to say.

    The panda conservation effort in many ways is helpful to other conservation efforts, isn't that?

  • Melissa Songer, Smithsonian National Zoo:

    Absolutely. The research and the things we learn about their ecology and their ecosystems benefits the species they are sharing the space with. So when we work to conserve a large mammal like the giant panda, we're re also conserving habitat for a range of species. The new Giant Panda National Park is estimated that some 4,000 species, known species, so even more than that will be protected under that. That's one of the reasons why we call it an umbrella species.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    So what do make of that phenomenon, the sense that when you were to preserve habitats for things like pandas, animals like pandas, there are other species who benefit.

  • Dr. Rebecca Nesbit:

    I think that is absolutely true. And from saving a species like the panda, we're protecting the forest, which is not just amazing for all the other species but for all the things that a forest does for us, whether that is helping with flood control, with climate regulation, perhaps it's providing some goods for local people living there. This forest is amazing for so many reasons. And sometimes, it takes a species like a panda to get us all behind that effort to save that forest.

    And I think the panda is so important as an icon because the panda has shown us how successful conservation can be that the conservationists really turned around its fortunes. And seeing those success stories is just a reminder of how valuable and successful conservation can be.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    So as we wrap up this conversation, what are some best practices based on research to preserve global biodiversity?

  • Dr. Rebecca Nesbit:

    There's all sorts of things that need to go into protecting wildlife. And this is everything from thinking about how we live our lives. Our diets, for example, do we waste lots of food? Because that land was used to grow that food. And if we throw it in that beam, that is land that could have been used for wildlife that is now wasted. Bringing more people into conversations, and all of us taking part in conversations about how to save wildlife, how to prioritize, is very important. And thinking of an environmental justice position when talking about how to make those decisions.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Doctor Rebecca Nesbit is an ecologist and author of the book Tickets For The Ark, From Wasps to Whales, how do we choose what to save? Thanks for your time and for your insights.

  • Dr. Rebecca Nesbit:

    Thank you.

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