Triple Bottom Line: This just in — ugly animals have good personalities

We’re currently on the brink of a sixth mass extinction. Species naturally fluctuate with the passage of time, but this extinction is different. Plants and animals across the globe are being threatened by climate change, disease, habitat degradation and competition for resources with nonnative species — all conditions exacerbated by the heavy anthropogenic footprint on our planet. While we can’t fully prevent the ebb and flow of evolution, we can certainly address the impacts of our own actions. 

As humans, we’ve established a tradition of focusing our conservation efforts on more aesthetic animals. There’s even a term for the phenomenon — “charismatic megafauna,” encompassing all the exciting “marquee species” like pandas, whales, polar bears and elephants. Qualities such as humanlike characteristics, warm-bloodedness, bright colors and even commercial viability can subconsciously influence our love for certain species and consequently, our desire to save them. 

We’ve been known to do the same thing with commercially-profitable species like bluefin tuna, honey bees, dolphins and whales. But where does this leave the world’s bats, snakes, insects, spiders, rodents and marine filter feeders? 

Scientists have long argued that donating to more appealing species creates an umbrella effect that adequately protects the rather less-charismatic species out there, but is our prioritization of aesthetics and profit to our own detriment? Focusing on flagship species is an efficient way to segment off areas of ecosystems as protected, but a blanket approach fails to adequately cover the individual needs of all flora and fauna. 

We’re in danger of restructuring the natural function of Earth’s ecosystems through human aesthetic preferences. Our conservation strategies are un-biological in nature, failing to account for the complexity of habitats and species interactions. Even if we successfully protect populations from various anthropogenic threats, failing to account for the entire food web can still cause major trophic downgrades. 

According to a study conducted by Arizona State University conservation science professor Leah R. Gerber, the amount of government funding available for species under the United States Endangered Species Act is one of the best predictors of species recovery. However, according to the study, “government spending is both insufficient and highly disproportionate among groups of species.” This phenomenon is common around the globe, and limited funds force scientists to place a monetary value on the conservation of particular species.

When it comes to funding, is a narrow focus on particular species better than no focus at all? One such approach by scientists is conservation triage. Creating a priority order of species to save may mean letting go of those that are too costly to recover. Conversely, New Zealand has been working on a Project Prioritization Protocol that assesses the urgency of species situations, how preserving them would help other taxonomic groups and offers individualized conservation plans that even include cost estimates. This strategy has even increased governmental funding, as montized estimates show what could be done with more money allotted. 

PPP has proven that the capacity to allocate funds more effectively is possible — even with minimal funding, we can still create maximum scientifically-informed impact. The EDGE of Existence conservation program offers yet another alternative to traditional financial decision-making, evaluating species with the goal of preserving distinct evolutionary branches. While EDGE must be improved — it currently only analyzes species that have been evaluated by the highly incomplete International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List — it’s proven that marketing lesser-known wildlife can actually cause an increase in funding for its conservation. 

Successfully protecting endangered species requires a combination of funding, protected areas and specialized conservation strategies. Take, for example, the New Zealand kakapo — a flightless, endemic parrot that has long existed on the brink of extinction. Conservationists generated public interest by making it the official “spokesbird” of New Zealand conservation, and it became the inspiration for the “party parrot” emoji, a staple of the Daily Trojan Slack channels. 

More importantly, scientists have employed a variety of well-researched and specific strategies in order to encourage repopulation — activity trackers, genome sequencing, artificial insemination and constant monitoring — in addition to championing traditional Indigenous ecological knowledge. The individualized approach has resulted in record-breaking breeding years and a revived public interest in the fate of the birds. 

Despite this, there are still limits to what conservation can achieve. The reversal of global biodiversity loss is counterintuitive to continued human industrialization and economic growth. Money can go a long way towards creating protected areas and rehabilitation programs for flora and fauna around the world, but we’ll soon reach a limit at which point the extinctions will far exceed our economically minded comprehension. Not to mention, in many cases, we lack the basic funding to identify the full extent of species being threatened. 

Our best bet moving forward is an ecosystem-based management approach — carefully considering costs and benefits beyond just monetary terms, and employing well-researched and multipronged conservation strategies that consider ecosystem impacts as a whole. We all want to save the koalas, but in doing so, we also need to address the well-being of other natural components of their habitat, as well as effectively manage anthropogenic interactions with the ecosystem. Despite logistical funding challenges, we must get in the habit of expanding our environmental savior complex beyond the scope of just economic and aesthetic value. Species conservation is more than a charity project: It is a crucial component of ensuring planetary health for generations to come.

Montana Denton is a senior writing about environmental issues, sustainability and society. Her column, “Triple Bottom Line,” runs every other Thursday.