Development & Education

How to save endangered species

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(Image by Flickr user NOAA (cc: by))

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This story was originally covered by PRI's The Takeaway. For more, listen to the audio above.

As many as 50 species are at risk of extinction every year, according to a new study from International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). While this may seem like a daunting figure, humans can protect endangered species from extinction under certain circumstances. The humpback whale population, for example, has gone from 5 thousand to nearly 80 thousand in just a few decades.

So why are we great at protecting some species from extinction but lousy at protecting others?

In order to successfully protect a species, the study from the IUCN found that a long-term effort is required to address the primary cause of the population decline. There also needs to be sufficient funding to make the program worthwhile. In other words, simply listing the animal as endangered won't accomplish the goal -- there needs to be a concerted effort to protect the species, too.

The public needs to buy into the efforts too, says Dr. Doug Inkley, a senior scientist at the National Wildlife Federation. One reason why the efforts to protect the humpback whale were so successful, according to Inkley, was because the public paid close attention to it.

Scientists call large animals like the whale, "charismatic mega-fauna," because they capture the imagination of the public. It's typically easier to get people on board to protect these species.

One counter-example, however, is the giant panda. Despite capturing the public's attention, the giant panda remains one of world's the most endangered species. This is because the problem facing the panda is the loss of habitat, which is the most difficult problem to reverse. Habitat loss it is often caused by global warming, which would take a worldwide coordinated effort to stop. Inkley says: "Global warming is a pervasive problem that if we do not address it, it will continue to affect habitats worldwide."

They key to protecting endangered species isn't merely to protect one individual species from extinction. Conservationists should take a wider view of the problem, because protecting one species could help protect others.

"Historically we have focused on individual species," Inkey says, "but more and more now we are trying to focus on ecosystems or habitats, recognizing that if we can pay more attention to the places these species live, then we can pay less attention to the individual species."

"The Takeaway" is a national morning news program, delivering the news and analysis you need to catch up, start your day, and prepare for what's ahead. The show is a co-production of WNYC and PRI, in editorial collaboration with the BBC, The New York Times Radio, and WGBH. More at thetakeaway.org

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