- A team of researchers with Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) and non-profit conservation organization Panthera looked at 152 countries and compiled what they call a Megafauna Conservation Index in order to evaluate each country’s contributions to the conservation of the world’s biodiversity.
- African countries Botswana, Namibia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, together with South Asian nation Bhutan, were the top five megafauna conservation performers, the researchers found.
- Norway came in at sixth, the top-ranked developed country, followed by Canada, which came in at eighth. The United States ranked nineteenth, lower than countries like Malawi and Mozambique that are among the least-developed in the world.
Studies have shown that, due to human activities, species loss over the past century was at least 100 times higher than historical levels, fueling speculation that we’re witnessing a sixth global extinction event.
There’s still time to save many of the world’s most recognizable large animals, or megafauna – species like elephants, gorillas, lions, rhinos, and tigers. But of those species still with us, 60 percent of the world’s largest herbivores and 59 percent of the world’s largest carnivores have been found to be currently threatened with extinction due to threats like habitat destruction, human-wildlife conflicts, over-hunting, and the growing wildlife trade – in addition to the impacts of climate change.
Given these circumstances, you’d think that countries across the world would be dedicating resources to protecting wildlife, and you’d be right. But of course there are varying levels of commitment to conserving threatened species, and research published in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation last month suggests that rich, developed countries are frequently doing the least.
A team of researchers with Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) and non-profit conservation organization Panthera looked at 152 countries and compiled what they call a Megafauna Conservation Index in order to evaluate each country’s contributions to the conservation of the world’s biodiversity.
“Our index provides a measure of how well each country is doing, and sets a benchmark for nations that are performing below the average level, to understand the kind of contributions they need to make as a minimum,” Professor David Macdonald, director of WildCRU, said in a statement. “There is a strong case for countries where mega-fauna species have been historically persecuted, to assist their recovery.”
The team’s results, Macdonald said, show that “Every country should strive to do more to protect its wildlife.” But that is particularly true of more affluent countries.
The Megafauna Conservation Index factors in three chief measures of countries’ conservation efforts: the proportion of each country occupied by surviving megafauna species; the proportion of the range for each of those megafauna species that has been placed under some sort of protected status; and the amount of money each country spends on conservation initiatives, both domestically and internationally, relative to its GDP.
The researchers say that their findings show that poorer countries tend to be more active in protecting biodiversity than richer nations. African countries Botswana, Namibia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, together with South Asian nation Bhutan, were the top five megafauna conservation performers, for instance. Norway came in at sixth, the top-ranked developed country, followed by Canada, which came in at eighth. The United States ranked nineteenth, lower than countries like Malawi and Mozambique that are among the least-developed in the world.
Fifty-six of the 152 countries studied contributed less than the average amount, including 28 ranked as below-average and 28 identified as major under-performers. The contributions of the remaining 96 countries were above average, including 19 ranked that ranked as major performers.
Some 70 percent of African countries and 67 percent of South America countries were classified as either above-average or major performers based on their Megafauna Conservation Index scores, while nearly one-fourth of Asian and European countries were classified as underperformers.
The authors recommend that these kinds of rankings be published regularly “to recognise major-performers, foster healthy pride and competition among nations, and identify ways for governments to improve their performance.”
Peter Lindsey, a research associate with Panthera and the lead author of the study, said that there are three ways countries can improve their score on the Megafauna Conservation Index: “Firstly, they can ‘re-wild’ their landscapes by reintroducing mega-fauna and/or by allowing the distribution of such species to increase. They can also set aside more land as strictly protected areas. And they can invest more in conservation, either at home or abroad.”
There are a number of reasons why the loss of megafauna species is “particularly worrisome,” Lindsey and his co-authors note in the study. For one thing, they have immense cultural and social importance to humans. “The idea that large charismatic animals still persist in their natural habitats is greatly valued by large sectors of human society,” the researchers write. “Megafauna thus have existence values that arguably surpass those of most other species. The charisma of megafauna means they are disproportionately important in terms of engendering interest and willingness to pay for conservation among sectors of the general public.”
This inherent value ascribed by humans to megafauna can be “harnessed” by countries, the researchers say, citing Botswana, Kenya, and South Africa as countries that have translated the appeal of large mammals into wildlife-based tourism industries that represent significant sectors of their economies.
Megafauna species also tend to play important roles within their respective ecosystems, helping to regulate nutrient cycles and preserve healthy predatory-to-prey ratios while also being key to seed dispersal and other vital ecological processes. And because these bigger species tend to require larger areas for their conservation, they frequently act as what’s called “umbrella species,” meaning that conservation initiatives aimed at those species indirectly benefit a number of others in the process.
But Lindsey added that it’s imperative for countries, especially under-performing rich countries, to scale up their efforts quickly. “Scores of species across the globe, including tigers, lions and rhinos, are at risk of extinction due to a plethora of threats imposed by mankind,” he said. “We cannot ignore the possibility that we will lose many of these incredible species unless swift, decisive and collective action is taken by the global community.”
- Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, Anthony D. Barnosky, Andrés García, Robert M. Pringle, & Todd M. Palmer. Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction. Science Advances, 1(5), e1400253. doi:10.1126/sciadv.1400253
- Lindsey, P. A., Chapron, G., Petracca, L. S., Burnham, D., Hayward, M. W., Henschel, P., … & Ripple, W. J. (2017). Relative efforts of countries to conserve world’s megafauna. Global Ecology and Conservation, 10, 243-252. doi:10.1016/j.gecco.2017.03.003
- Ripple, W. J., Estes, J. A., Beschta, R. L., Wilmers, C. C., Ritchie, E. G., Hebblewhite, M., … & Schmitz, O. J. (2014). Status and ecological effects of the world’s largest carnivores. Science, 343(6167), 1241484. doi:10.1126/science.1241484
- Ripple, W. J., Newsome, T. M., Wolf, C., Dirzo, R., Everatt, K. T., Galetti, M., … & Macdonald, D. W. (2015). Collapse of the world’s largest herbivores. Science Advances, 1(4), e1400103. doi:10.1126/sciadv.1400103