Ignoring declining species until they become rare poses risks to ecosystems

NEW YORK (April 18, 2013) – A provocative new paper written by current and recent Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) scientists takes the international wildlife conservation community to task for ignoring abundant wildlife and their importance to ecosystems and humans worldwide.

The paper, “Abundance as a Conservation Value,” written by longtime WCS scientist Kent Redford, now head of Archipelago Consulting; WCS Senior Scientist Joel Berger, John J. Craighead Chair of Wildlife Biology at the University of Montana; and WCS Coordinator of Bird Conservation, Steve Zack, appears in the April issue of the international journal of conservation, Oryx.

“Many once abundant species are currently in decline, yet conservationists and institutions often take notice and action only when they become rare,” says lead author Redford. “It is like practicing medicine only in the emergency room and wondering why patients only increase in number.”

The consequence of not addressing and conserving abundance in wildlife populations put at risk the ecosystem services that abundant, not merely present, species provide, the authors stress. These include forest seed dispersal, nutrient movement from the marine to the terrestrial by salmon and other anadromous fishes, and the regulatory role that predators like wolves play with elk and other species. Humans in turn rely on such services delivered by abundance in nature, including eco-tourism fueled by experiencing wildlife abundance as viewed in the Serengeti, Yellowstone, and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The authors say there are four major reasons for conservationists to care about the phenomenon of abundance:

First, it is easier in cost and management effort to maintain abundance in wildlife populations than it is to keep once abundant and now rare species from extinction.

Second, abundant species provide many vital ecosystem services on which nature and humans rely including water filtration by oysters, nutrient transport by salmon and river herring, and nutrient cycling by migrating wildebeest.

Third, abundance maintains other species – including humans – and ecosystems. Examples include elephants as seed dispersers, bees as pollinators, and fish as sources of human food.

Lastly, wildlife in abundance, also called spectacles, helps inspire conservationists and their supporters and builds connections with the natural world.

“The saiga antelope in central Asia has plummeted from more than a million animals to only tens of thousands in recent years,” says Berger of one of the many ungulates he has studied throughout his conservation career. “If the conservation community had committed to maintain this species abundance rather than belatedly acting on averting its extinction, then this Asian icon would be conserved, and at much less cost.”

“Abundance is the dramatic feature of Arctic wildlife, particularly true in the worldwide aggregation of migratory birds that breed in coastal plain wetlands during the short summer,” says Zack of his recent studies and conservation efforts in Arctic Alaska. “Just focusing on the conservation of the currently few species warranting status as endangered would result in missing the essence and nature of this dramatic place”.

The authors note that it is encouraging that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is now developing a “Green List” for species, a process that emphasizes recovery and perhaps emphasis on returning species to abundance, and thus moving away from the sole emphasis on Red Lists of species that fixate on rarity and extinction.

STEPHEN SAUTNER: (1-718-220-3682; ssautner@wcs.org)
JOHN DELANEY: (1-718-220-3275; jdelaney@wcs.org)

The Wildlife Conservation Society saves wildlife and wild places worldwide. We do so through science, global conservation, education and the management of the world's largest system of urban wildlife parks, led by the flagship Bronx Zoo. Together these activities change attitudes towards nature and help people imagine wildlife and humans living in harmony. WCS is committed to this mission because it is essential to the integrity of life on Earth. Visit: www.wcs.org