When I was an undergraduate studying conservation in the dim and distant past, we were told that the way endangered species would be saved would be to give them a financial value, and “wise use” of these species would allow them to survive. Well, that worked well, didn’t it…? The poster species of the “wise use” movement (such as elephants) are much closer to extinction today than they were decades ago.
Today there is somewhat of a rift in conservation between the “new conservation” movement and, well, the rest of conservation scientists. New conservation establishes “economic development, poverty alleviation, and corporate partnerships as surrogates or substitutes for endangered species listings, protected areas, and other mainstream conservation tools,” to quote the words of the grandfather of Conservation Biology, Michael Soulé . It could be argued that this is little more than a rebranding of the “wise use” movement although there are those that debate this.
The term “use it or lose it” was a tagline for these movements. Endangered species and habitats need to have some sort of value – to pay their way – or they will go extinct. This does make a sort of sense; species and habitats with an economic value, theoretically, will be maintained in order to maintain that value. Moreover, conservationists could, theoretically, be on a more level playing field with their opponents when arguing with policy makers, as they would be able to assign an economic and employment value to species they protect, similar to the corporations and others they are opposing.
The problem with the various conservation strategies that present nature as a resource to be exploited is that as soon as one puts a value on the killing of an endangered species or the destruction of a habitat, it will happen, and frequently – if not always – at unsustainable levels. Declining numbers of a species do little to slow down the exploitation, because if there is a market for a threatened species or its products, being rarer just makes it more valuable until the moment it goes extinct. Rarely do conservation projects have enough resources to enforce strict regulations and so overexploitation, poaching or illegal activities are often inevitable.
So rather than talking simply about the “value” of endangered species, perhaps we should be talking specifically about categorizing the “dead” value versus the “living” value – to be a bit more scientifically and politically correct, the consumptive versus the non-consumptive value. “Dead” value might include sale of species products, whilst “living” value might include ecosystem services provided by habitats, tourism value (species as a target of wildlife tourism), entertainment value (value from watching animals in zoos or on TV shows) or intrinsic or aesthetic value (for example, what the public is willing to provide in taxes to maintain the existence of species in the wild).
If conservationists talked more about the value of endangered species and habitats in terms of their living or non-consumptive value, then there would be less conflict within the conservation community over the concept of assigning economic value to species in the first place. Once a species or habitat is assigned a “dead” value, considering the nature of the world we live in, it is likely doomed to extinction.