Prioritizing research efforts and on-the-ground action is essential for conservation, but also incredibly hard. There’s plenty of debate about how best to set conservation priorities: save everything, triage/mathematical formulas for decisions, how to weigh expert opinion and societal values, etc. Since conservation decisions can have real consequences for protecting species (and local human communities and economies), there are naturally some biases in what we decide to protect. Charismatic megafauna garner a lot of attention in conservation; but, they also draw ire from people who want to protect something besides large vertebrates! Like small vertebrates! (I jest.) Or plants or inverts which are both more speciose groups than vertebrates. When charismatic megafauna suck up our limited attention and conservation monies, other species suffer.
As my conservation work is all in the abstract, I heard two things at the 24th International Conference on Bear Research and Management about how for real on-the-ground conservation works; specifically, that we prioritize SUPER charismatic megafauna over regular level charismatic megafauna. The first comment followed a talk about sloth bear (Ursus ursinus) monitoring and conservation in India, an audience member stood up and said that what hurts sloth bear conservation the most is tiger and rhino conservation.
WHOA! Dude put rhino conservation on blast!
I was shocked that someone said this out loud. But many grizzled conservationists won’t be shocked at all, they know that conservation priorities are not always synergistic. One could argue that if tigers are protected, then bears will be protected due to proximity. These species have similar threats including poaching and habitat loss; thus anti-poaching campaigns or habitat patch connectivity efforts should benefit both species. But these are assumptions. Part of what this person was saying was if we don’t have funds to monitor bears, we may not be able to actually protect them. If tigers and bears live in different forest patches, then protecting tigers may not help bears and we wouldn’t even know. Or maybe poaching and habitat destruction differentially affect each species, where lessening one impact only helps one species.
The second example was the explanation of how the Bear Specialist Group proposed a motion in 2012 to the World Conservation Congress to end the practice of bear bile farming. On bile farms, bears have a tube implanted that drains bile out of their gall bladder which can be collected by workers when the bear is immobilized in a small cage. The bile is sold as a traditional Asian medicine. Details of the proposal can be read here (p 12-16). But the proposal never moved forward because the Chinese government stated they would lobby against it, meaning they would pressure other countries to be against the bear proposal or they would withdraw support for conservation measures that those countries wanted. I get it, this is conservation politics. The result was that the Bear Specialist Group had four years to study the issue of bile farming and bile users and must give a report at the 2016 meeting. No easy task as the Chinese government prevented the bile researchers from accessing the facilities and consumers they said they would study.
But behind the scenes the Chinese government officials told the Bear Specialist Group that part of the reason for being recalcitrant was that all of their energy and political capital was being used on issues related to the trade of elephant ivory. Elephant poaching to source growing ivory demands may be the world’s foremost conservation issue and has garnered much attention from conservationists and governments in the last few years.
Only working on one big issue at a time is a hallmark of policy work. So while it’s not surprising that conservation institutions cannot tackle decreasing elephant poaching and ending bear farming at the same time, it highlights how super star species can outcompete perfectly charismatic species for resources and attention. And if charismatic megafauna struggle to get attention, will we ever pay attention to endangered lichen?! There are no easy solutions to these types of problems and I don’t propose any. But these bear examples highlighted just how challenging the conservation of species can be, even for beloved animals.