(ANIMAL CONSERVATION) Cute animals can capture our hearts, and our donation money. Seals, pandas and tigers, for example, have been the focus of many conservation efforts, while slimy amphibians and ugly scavengers are often forgotten. Canadian experts say that we might be artificially selecting for the prettiest and most useful animals to survive. Read on to find how and why our protection of animals is unbalanced.  — Global Animal
Photo Credit: Two Big Paws on Flickr

Montreal Gazette, Tom Spears

For endangered species, it pays to be a large mammal with sad eyes that cuddles its babies. Glamorous animals, big predators and, above all, the extremely cute and fuzzy stand a chance of getting people to protect them and their habitats.

Ugly animals – as judged by human eyes – are far more likely to be left aside when humans draw up conservation plans. Anyone care to save Ontario’s rattlesnakes?

Canadian ecology experts say such thinking means we’re in danger of re-shaping nature to beautify it according to human notions of what’s pretty, saving the mammals but letting the reptiles and amphibians disappear.

As for plants, they’re barely even on the list of candidates for protection.

This thought struck Ernie Small a couple of years ago at a conference on endangered species.

Small is a veteran research scientist at Agriculture Canada in Ottawa. He’s a plant specialist with a strong interest in ecology that doesn’t confine itself to farms.

Confronted with this notion that we’re selectively protecting species for all the wrong reasons, he produced a research paper, recently published in a science journal called Biodiversity.

His article is called The New Noah’s Ark, a reference to the Biblical story of Noah building a ship to save animals from drowning. But while Noah rescued everything in sight, Small says today’s conservation is for “beautiful and useful species only.”

There’s broad support for “marquee and poster species,” he writes: whales, pandas, polar bears, elephants.

We also protect commercially important species. Salmon stocks are important to us. Bluefin tuna are the object of efforts to prevent overfishing. And farmers are desperate to save the honey bee from whatever mysterious threats are wiping out colonies.

But that’s where our efforts often stall.

“Aesthetic and commercial standards have become the primary determinants of which species in the natural world deserve conservation,” Small concludes.

“Accordingly, the world’s biodiversity is being beautified by selective conservation of attractive species, while the plight of the overwhelming majority of species is receiving limited attention.”

And he says the losers in the competition for protection are mostly reptiles and amphibians, even though these – especially frogs and toads – are probably the most endangered groups of animals in the world.

Environment Canada couldn’t provide any cost estimates for protecting individual species, but it can be big business.

The joint Canada-U.S. recovery plan for the whooping crane, for instance, costs the two countries a total of $6.1 million a year now and will cost nearly $125 million through 2035.

Meanwhile, many less spectacular endangered plants and creatures have no budget at all for conservation. That means no satellites to search for homes for the Lake Erie water snake.

Coca-Cola, meantime, will contribute $2 million to the World Wildlife Fund over five years to protect polar bears, and will match consumers’ donations up to a further $1 million. But corporate donors aren’t lining up to save toads.

In the front lines of conservation, Small’s claim isn’t a surprise.

Dan Brunton writes status reports on plants that are used to determine which species belong on Canada’s Species At Risk List.

“Those funny little quillwort ferns that I study – those things are globally rare. And the total amount of federal and provincial money that’s gone into the conservation might amount to $20,000,” he said.

Even that has mostly gone into paying for studies, not into concrete protection.

There are haves and havenots among these plants (and animal species, too). The haves are lucky enough to live in national parks, where the staff have a legal duty to protect them under the National Parks Act. The have-nots live elsewhere, and they’re on their own.

“On the flip side, look at the money that has been put into conservation of the Gulf of St. Lawrence population of beluga whales,” Brunton says. “It’s not even one per cent of the global population of beluga whales.”

But he says political will has mobilized protection as if this were the world’s whole supply of belugas.

Political winds blow differently in different places. It’s legal to hunt and eat Arctic belugas, even though they are the same animal.

“Pretty stupid in my view,” Brunton says bluntly. “One uncommon part of a very common species is getting millions of dollars. But they’re cute and cuddly and they have ecotourism.”

As for Agriculture Canada researcher Small, his first degree was a BA in psychology, and he hasn’t lost the taste for wondering about human motivation.

Useful species will be selectively preserved – “and things that are cute are certainly selectively preserved,” he writes. “But also, people have other inclinations.”

He set out to describe what attributes make animals attractive to humans. The successful candidates exhibit:

–Usefulness – providing humans with food, clothing or medicine;

–Human-like traits, such as having a high forehead and expressive eyes and being a mammal, or at least a vertebrate;

–Be large and fierce. For some reason we like dangerous animals, and are fascinated with their weapons, from teeth to horns. (Watch any kid in the dinosaur gallery.) Small thinks this may explain the fact that tigers are the kings of global conservation efforts;

–It must live above ground, preferably in a family setting showing off the mother with adorable cubs or kittens (one Toronto conservationist calls such animals “the cuddlies”);

–It should not smell bad;

— It helps to be warm-blooded;

–Bright colours also help, while being covered with scales or a slimy skin is bad;

–Attractive animals eat “clean” food. We don’t like scavengers and carrionpickers;

–Traits that are unhealthy in humans should be avoided. We have little urge to conserve animals with warts, bow legs, wrinkles (except for elephants), irregular teeth or a habit of drooling;

–Plants have attributes that attract humans, too – big flowers, fruit, huge size (trees), decorative foliage and the ability to draw birds, butterflies, bees and squirrels.

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