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Anticipating a species extinction is much better than reacting to it

In the realm of conservation, actions are generally taken once a species is already considered threatened, often through measures such as establishing protected areas. However, a groundbreaking study published in the journal Current Biology suggests a new approach: using existing conservation data to predict which species could be at risk in the future and implementing proactive measures to prevent their decline before it becomes a crisis.

Study lead author Dr. Marcel Cardillo of Australian National University noted the limitations that conservationists face. “Conservation funding is really limited. Ideally, what we need is some way of anticipating species that may not be threatened at the moment but have a high chance of becoming threatened in the future. Prevention is better than cure.”

To identify “over-the-horizon” extinction risks, Dr. Cardillo and his team examined three aspects of global change – climate change, human population growth, and the rate of change in land use – alongside intrinsic biological features that could render certain species more vulnerable. Through their analysis, the researchers predict that by the year 2100, up to 20% of land mammals will face a combination of two or more of these risk factors.

Concentrations of terrestrial mammal species with multiple future risk factors

The researchers elaborated on the global implications of their findings: “Globally, the percentage of terrestrial mammal species that our models predict will have at least one of the four future risk factors by 2100 ranges from 40% under a middle-of-the-road emissions scenario with broad species dispersal to 58% under a fossil-fueled development scenario with no dispersal.”

Regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa and southeastern Australia are particularly susceptible to the convergence of multiple future risk factors, including climate change (expected to be especially severe in Africa), human population growth, and changes in land use. “And there are a lot of large mammal species that are likely to be more sensitive to these things. It’s pretty much the perfect storm,” said Dr. Cardillo.

Balancing conservation and cultural sensitivity

This study has also shed light on the challenges of conserving larger mammal species and the need to incorporate cultural considerations into conservation efforts. The researchers found that large mammals, such as elephants, rhinos, giraffes, and kangaroos, are more susceptible to population decline due to their reproductive patterns. These animals have long gestational periods and produce fewer offspring at a time, unlike smaller mammals like rodents, which reproduce quickly and in larger numbers.

Dr. Cardillo explained that the traditional approach to conservation has been to establish protected areas where human activities are limited or controlled. “Traditionally, conservation has relied heavily on declaring protected areas. The basic idea is that you remove or mitigate what is causing the species to become threatened.”

However, Cardillo also points out that this approach may not always be the most effective or culturally sensitive. “But increasingly, it’s being recognized that that’s very much a Western view of conservation because it dictates separating people from nature. It’s a sort of view of nature where humans don’t play a role, and that’s something that doesn’t sit well with a lot of cultures in many parts of the world.”

Establishing Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs)

The researchers emphasize the importance of considering the impact of conservation efforts on Indigenous communities. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, many Indigenous populations coexist with large mammal species. Imposing Western ideas of conservation on these communities, although well-intended, could have unintended negative consequences.

One potential solution is the establishment of Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs), as seen in Australia. These areas are owned by Indigenous peoples and managed with the assistance of local rangers. Through collaboration between governments and private landowners, it becomes possible for humans and animals to coexist in these regions.

“There’s an important part to play for broad-scale modeling studies because they can provide a broad framework and context for planning,” explained Dr. Cardillo. “But science is only a very small part of the mix. We hope our model acts as a catalyst for bringing about some kind of change in the outlook for conservation.”

As the world continues to grapple with the challenge of protecting vulnerable large mammal populations, it is essential to develop a more inclusive and culturally sensitive approach to conservation. Balancing scientific knowledge with the insights and perspectives of local communities will be crucial to ensuring the long-term survival of these magnificent species.

By focusing on predicting future risks and adopting preventive strategies, this innovative study aims to change the way conservation efforts are approached. With a more proactive stance, it may be possible to protect vulnerable species before they reach the brink of extinction, ultimately leading to a more sustainable future for the planet’s diverse array of life.

Present state of mammalian extinction risk

According to the IUCN, there are over 1,300 mammal species classified as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered, putting them at risk of extinction. It’s important to note that the total number and the status of individual species may change over time as new data becomes available or as conservation efforts impact populations.

Some of the well-known mammals at risk of extinction include:

  1. Sumatran Tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) – Critically Endangered
  2. Amur Leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) – Critically Endangered
  3. Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) – Critically Endangered
  4. Sumatran Orangutan (Pongo abelii) – Critically Endangered
  5. Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) – Endangered
  6. African Elephant (Loxodonta africana) – Endangered
  7. Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) – Endangered
  8. Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia) – Vulnerable
  9. Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus) – Endangered
  10. Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) – Vulnerable

These species are at risk due to various factors, including habitat loss, poaching, illegal wildlife trade, and climate change. It is crucial to continue conservation efforts to protect these species and their habitats to prevent their extinction.


Image Credit: Current Biology/Cardillo et al.

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