Before you all get excited and ready to shoot me down in flames, this post is not about pandas 😉 It is about how we, as humans, have a very warped view about the value of the species with whom we share this planet – note I did not say OUR planet.
Imagine this as a newspaper headline; Scientists discover a way to eradicate Siberian tigers or this; Destroy Polar Bear menace say local residents or this, Malawi’s ”Serial Killer” Crocodiles Cause Havoc among the Blind, actually this last one is true http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/33608 😉
Most people on seeing headlines like those would be putting pen to paper, typing tweets, sharing links and generally making a huge fuss. Replace tigers, pandas and crocodiles with mosquitoes, aphids and spiders and the only people making a fuss would be that other endangered species, entomologists, as evidenced by this Twitter conversation sparked off by this article http://www.radiolab.org/story/kill-em-all/
I know I said this wasn’t about pandas but bear with me for a minute.
The following sentences are from the WWF site http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/endangered_species/giant_panda/panda/why_we_save_the_giant_panda/
“The giant panda is one of these species threatened to be wiped off the planet. Ironically, it is also one better known and loved species in the world and one of the strongest symbols of nature conservation. That is one of the main reasons why they are so important: by mobilizing people to save the panda, we are actually helping preserve the rich biodiversity, plants, landscapes, other animals that need to be there in order for the pandas to survive.
The region where pandas live, in the Yangtze Basin and its magnificent forests are home to a stunning array of wildlife such as dwarf blue sheep and beautiful multi-coloured pheasants; as well as a number of other endangered species, including the golden monkey, takin and crested ibis. The panda’s habitat is also home for millions of people. This is the geographic and economic heart of China. By making this area more sustainable, we are also helping to increase the quality of life of local populations”
By rewriting this very slightly and using Anopheles gambiae and mosquito instead of panda, you get this somewhat thought-provoking version;
Anopheles gambiae is one of those species threatened to be wiped off the planet by the deliberate action of man (http://synbiobeta.com/oxitec-arming-insects-eliminate/ and http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/newsandeventspggrp/imperialcollege/newssummary/news_10-6-2014-16-5-11).
The region where Anopheles gambiae live, sub-Saharan Africa, and its magnificent forests and savannahs are home to a stunning array of wildlife such as lions, elephants and giraffes; as well as a number of other endangered species, including the cheetah and black rhino.
That is one of the main reasons why they are so important: by mobilizing people to save the mosquito, we are actually helping preserve the rich biodiversity, plants, landscapes, other animals that need to be there in order for the mosquitoes to survive.
The mosquitoes’ habitat is also home for millions of people. This is the geographic and economic heart of Africa. By making this area more sustainable, we are also helping to increase the quality of life of local populations”
I know that this is a somewhat extreme example, and I am in NO way whatsoever saying that malaria prevention is a bad thing and that we should allow millions of people to die every year. What I am proposing is that we should look at the ways we can protect people from malaria and other fatal and debilitating diseases and our crops from the depredations of pests and diseases that don’t involve the eradication of other species on the planet.
Conservation biology teaches us that we should preserve species for a number of reasons. Common textbook examples usually include the following:
Resource values – all species may have an economic or ecological value, some of which we do not yet appreciate e.g. Food, pharmaceuticals, watershed regulation, coastline stabilisation, reefs for fisheries, tourism, education, ecological baselines, habitat reconstruction etc.
Non-resource values – all species should be valued anyway e.g. Religion, moral codes, social/cultural values, existence values, intrinsic value, and aesthetic values
Precautionary principle – all species should be preserved just in case – the rivets and spaceship (aeroplane) theory
This latter theory comes from the preface to Paul Ehrlich’s 1981 book, Extinction, where he imagines a passenger inspecting the ‘plane he is about to fly in. The passenger notices someone popping rivets out of the wings and asks what he is doing. The rivet popper replies that the passenger shouldn’t worry because not all the rivets are necessary. The rivets represent species and the rivet popper represents humanity, and the ‘plane the planet Earth. Ehrlich predicted that continuing to pop the rivets of ecosystems would lead to “a crumbling of post-industrial society” and demanded that the rivet popping be stopped.
Michael Soulé, a pioneer conservation biologist and former PhD student of Paul Ehrlich wrote
“untimely extinction of populations and species is bad, conservation biology does not abhor extinction per se. Natural extinction is thought to be either value free or good because it is part of the process of replacing less well-adapted gene pools with better adapted ones. Ultimately, natural extinction, unless it is catastrophic, does not reduce biological diversity, because it is offset by speciation”
Conservation principles have moved from the preservation of single species to an ecosystem point of view as outlines recently by Professor Georgina Mace of University College London,
although the concept of keystone species, a term first coined by Richard Paine in 1969 has, particularly if the keystone species is vertebrate1 , had a marked influence on where conservation efforts have been directed over the years.
The concept of ecosystem services where species can be assigned an economic value depending on the services they offer to humankind is not new (e.g. Hooper, 1970; Westman, 1977), but has increasingly and unfortunately allowed politicians and research funders to make decisions about the worth of species from a purely human viewpoint. As a result, when discussing the eradication or otherwise of species there is a definite bias towards the ‘charismatic mega-fauna’ whether they are keystone species or not, and those species that cause us discomfort must argue very hard for their preservation; see for example this extract from Jennifer Fang’s (2010) article.
A stronger argument for keeping mosquitoes might be found if they provide ‘ecosystem services’ — the benefits that humans derive from nature. Evolutionary ecologist Dina Fonseca at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, points as a comparison to the biting midges of the family Ceratopogonidae, sometimes known as no-see-ums. “People being bitten by no-see-ums or being infected through them with viruses, protozoa and filarial worms would love to eradicate them,” she says. But because some ceratopogonids are pollinators of tropical crops such as cacao, “that would result in a world without chocolate”.
“They don’t occupy an unassailable niche in the environment,” says entomologist Joe Conlon, of the American Mosquito Control Association in Jacksonville, Florida. “If we eradicated them tomorrow, the ecosystems where they are active will hiccup and then get on with life. Something better or worse would take over.”
On the plus side sometimes the ecosystem services concept can be used to highlight the benefits of the smaller and often over-looked species, but yet again only if a substantial economic value can be assigned to them http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/oct/05/threatened-species-cannot-afford-to-lose-age-of-extinction
Personally, I am a great believer in retaining as many species as we can, so the deliberate eradication of species from their natural environments because we find them a nuisance makes me uneasy. We share this world, we don’t own it, so finding a way to live with ‘nuisance’ species must be a better option than eradicating them.
As a parting thought, consider these words from Ehrlich & Mooney (1980), and also bear in mind the UK Government’s recent Biodiversity Offsetting policy.
“Although there are numerous examples of unsuccessful substitutions, successful ones are hard to identify.
At some point the costs of substitution will almost certainly become unbearable. Therefore, it seems that a conservative approach, emphasizing the careful preservation of ecosystems and thus the populations and species that function within them is absolutely essential.”
Some things once broken are very difficult to put back together and might not work in the same way that they did before they were broken
Ehrlich, P. R. & Mooney, H.A. (1983) Extinction, substitution, and ecosystem services. BioScience, 33, 248-254
Fang, J. (2010) A World without mosquitoes. Nature, 466, 432-434
Hooper, J.F. (1970) Economics, the ecosystem and conservation. Journal of Range Management, 23, 148-150
Mace, G. (2014). Whose conservation? Science, 345, 1558-1560.
Paine, R. T. (1969). A note on trophic complexity and community stability. American Naturalist, 103, 91-93.
Soulé, M. E. (1985). What is conservation biology? Bioscience 35, 727-734.
Westman, W.E. (1977) How much are nature’s services worth? Science, 197, 960-964
1Somewhat ironically Paine’s 1969 paper in which he coined the term keystone species dealt with two invertebrate species, starfish.