Approach to Conservation: Species vs. Services

This week’s Nature has an interesting article about conservation of the Atlantic Forest of Brazil and the charismatic Golden Lion Tamarin.  We’ve all seen it before, conservation efforts for a particular area focus on the conservation of a single charismatic species.  Whether it’s a tiger, a panda, or a beautiful monkey, the basic approach is to use this single charismatic species to gain the attention of those people in a position to save this species.  If you save the species, then those efforts also result in saving other species that live in the same habitat.  It is an approach used by nearly every conservation group out there and it works fairly well.  But what about when it doesn’t?  What do you do then?

The Golden Lion Tamarin is a success story.  The population of these adorable monkeys is currently around 1,500, up from about 150 individuals in the 1970s, thanks to an extremely successful captive breeding program.  However, with a population of this size, the tamarins are starting to become a bit crowded.  The threat to the survival of these monkeys is no longer a case of shear numbers; it’s now about habitat conservation.

That Atlantic Forest of Brazil, a habitat home to an estimated 20,000 plant species and 2,155 vertebrate species.  Of these species about 40% are thought to be endemic, meaning that they are found only in this specific forest type.  Unfortunately, only about 10% of the forest remains and what does remain is highly fragmented.  This means that while there are many tamarins, they can’t move between forest patches easily.  So the question is, how can we protect this forest and regenerate corridors between the patches?

The new approach is now all about ecosystem services.  Conservationists now emphasize the benefits to local landowners and residents to have this forest nearby.  The forest provides erosion control and watershed protection.  It’s all about the water.  Without the forest, drinking water quality would crash, threatening the local residents.  It is in the best interest of local cities, towns, and rural farmers to protect these forests to ensure that they have adequate drinking water and water to irrigate their crops.

Other programs have started emphasizing new farming techniques that not only produce crops but also create corridors between forest patches, creating small highways for tamarins and other species to travel.  Other financial efforts come from promoting ecotourism and other forest related activities.  Carbon storing campaigns have also resulted in cash for reforestation and regeneration.

But can conservation based on ecosystem services also save species?  Of course there can be exceptions to the rule, but I think so.  Preservation of ecosystem services generally results in habitat preservation and that can’t be a bad thing.  The key, at least in this case, is how to connect the disparate patches so that there is gene flow between forest patches ensuring survival of these endangered and endemic species in perpetuity.

Source:  Russo, Gene.  “Biodiversity’s bright spot.” Nature 462.7271 (2009): 266-269.

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Comments

  1. Drew, interesting article. IMO, I’ve alway felt that any successful conservation effort needs a balance between any local human population and those natural resources needing protection. Developing a system where there’s a real, measurable and recognized benefit for both seems to be the only way the effort can sustain itself. This usually means multiple approaches.

    But then I’m only an I.T. guy and part time photographer! 😉

  2. Earl,

    I’m with you on this and thats why I decided to spotlight this article. I think combining multiple approaches like they have done here has proved successful. I have my own issues with the whole select a charismatic animal approach, but it does work well to create press and excitement. All in all, multiple groups working on different approaches seems to work best. The problem is when one groups efforts negate or cancel out another groups. Doesn’t happen often but sometimes you can help one species and hurt another.

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