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Favouritism in conservation: Bias towards the beautiful – Biodiversity Nepal
Biodiversity Nepal
For the Future Generation

Favouritism in conservation: Bias towards the beautiful

Some exception exist but it doesn't matter a lot in case of conservation.

Rhinoceros in Narayani River (©Anu Rai)

Wouldn’t you want to cuddle this adorable creature? With their furry body and beady eyes, the Red Panda looks extremely cute, doesn’t it? And what about the Rhinoceros, does it not inspire awe with its majestic horns and armour-like skin? For threatened species, it pays to be cute and attractive; ones with the human likeness have a bright colour or are large and fierce. Conservation works have repeatedly focused on these selected few species.

Small in his article “The new Noah’s Ark: beautiful and useful species only” writes the primary determinants on which species deserve conservation boils down to two primary determinants: aesthetic and commercial standards. He further adds, considering aesthetics, we are letting reptiles and amphibians disappear and plants are barely even on the list of candidates for protection. Likewise, commercial species have also merited protection such as honeybees for pollination, plants which are used for preventing erosion among others.

But in Nepal, the norms of aesthetics have taken hold on the conservation platform. Take for instance the Critically Endangered Jatamasi which has huge medicinal properties but apart from restrictions on its exports and study on the rates of harvest there hasn’t been much action on its conservation and sustainable utilization. Yarsagumba faces the problem of unsustainable harvest and has now been listed as Vulnerable species.

Red Panda in Cholangpati, Langtang National Park (©Hari Basnet)

Compare this to the Endangered Royal Bengal Tiger, the conservation action plan 2016-2020 was estimated to be NRs. 405 million. We are now very near doubling the number of Royal Bengal tigers by 2022. Heavy conservation efforts have also made it possible that the snow leopard is officially out of Endangered list. Unfortunately, other animals who do not share its charisma are getting extinct or in higher threats.

However, there are some notable exceptions such as the conservation of vulture. Vultures look repulsive, feed on carcasses and are much maligned. But beyond this, their actual significance in nature has been noted as natural sweepers and Nepal has succeeded in being the model for vulture conservation. But a few exceptions do not make a huge difference in the biases that are so prevalent.   

By such actions we are reshaping nature according to our notions of what’s beautiful and deserves conservation and the ones which are not perceived as such to disappear, writes Small. The charismatic species receive the bulk of the funding resulting in more research and research papers. This further results in protective legislation cementing the biased effort on the conservation front. The choice of many researchers also revolve around such species. One reason for such an effort is also the relatively lucrative employment opportunity. 

Troudet et al. in their article write societal preference is highly correlated with taxonomic bias which is the research non-proportionality as opposed to the organisms’ frequency in nature. According to Trimble and Aarde, the mean number of papers per threatened large mammal overshadowed that of threatened reptiles by 2.6 folds, birds by 15 folds, small mammals by 216 folds and amphibians by 500 folds. Hence, a few species rule the conservation arena. 

Why should this biasness matter? Conservation of a species also entails conservation of its habitat and by proximity all species residing in that habitat get protection. Conservation budget is already stretched thin and when we provide an achievable goal of saving one species with an appeal it helps to secure funding. So why is this an important issue some would argue? For this, I draw upon the conclusion from a study by Severns and Moldenke that single species driven conservation can result in the loss of local biodiversity. Favreau et al. also write that there can be a failure to capture rare, endangered, or endemic species when conservation networks are built around surrogate species. Hence, ecological significance has to be accounted for. 

There have been contentious debates on why we should conserve nature. There are arguments that nature should be protected because of intrinsic value (protected for its own sake) and those who believe nature merits protection because of its instrumental value (saving nature to help ourselves). Though instrumental values do make sense as the protection provided due to values associated such as cultural value, natural resource value, medicinal values etc., there should also be an appreciation of the inherent worth (a type of objective intrinsic value). Allowing biasness to cloud conservation works thereby, makes the case for devaluing life because it’s worth is not perceptible by us.

Now let’s talk about how we should make efforts to overcome such biases. Compassion has been seen as an important factor for wildlife conservation. Greving and Kimmerle suggest using depictions of distressed wildlife to engage citizens in wildlife conservation endeavours. Engagement in the form of Citizen Science also helps to eradicate taxonomic bias. Jeremy Hance also recommends storytelling to increase conservation interest for non-charismatic species or charisma challenged species. 

Unless we counterbalance our conservation program with a rational support for all habitat and species, the world will be devoid of rich biodiversity. We need to be mindful that conservation budgets are balanced. But in no way does this article advocate that we need to suppress our admiration for certain species but the moderation of our prejudices in understanding the value of other life forms can go a long way in slowing the current extinction rate. 

Anu Rai is a Freelance Environmental Researcher.

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