Few people would notice the willow blister, a spore-shooting fungus that grows parasitically on twigs in a small corner of Wales. Fewer still are likely to realize that this is one of the rarest fungi in the world, a distinction that gives the blister a place on an unenviable list: the world’s 100 most threatened species.
Equally unlikely to be noticed is the spoon-billed sandpiper, a small, dull-colored bird that breeds in Russia and migrates to Southeast Asia, targeted by hunters on the way.
The pygmy three-toed sloth, no bigger than a newborn baby when fully grown, is found only on a single island, off the coast of Panama. The woolly spider monkey, from the Atlantic forest of Brazil, is under threat from the increasing fragmentation of its last remaining habitats.
The list, published yesterday at the World Conservation Congress in South Korea, the meeting of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), was compiled by 8,000 scientists, and is the first of its kind.
The only obvious common characteristic of the animals on it is that all are clinging precariously to existence as a result of human actions such as destroying habitats, polluting, hunting and changing the climate. However, the scientists who compiled the list had another criterion: They have highlighted species they fear will be allowed to die out without a murmur because they have no obvious benefits for human beings.
The list is presented as a challenge, with the title: “Priceless or worthless?” Its compilers ask whether we care only for species that are “charismatic,” such as tigers and pandas, and those, such as the appetite-suppressing hoodia cactus of the Kalahari, that may yield benefits for medicine or other purposes. Or should even the apparently less-favored species we are wiping out deserve to be preserved.
For Jonathan Baillie, director of conservation at the Zoological Society of London, which compiled the list along with the IUCN, this dilemma reflects serious problems with the way conservation is funded today.
“The donor community and conservation movement are increasingly leaning towards a ‘what can nature do for us?’ approach, where species and wild habitats are valued and prioritized according to these services they provided for people. This has made it increasingly difficult for conservationists to protect the most threatened species on the plane,” he said.
In order to justify spending on conservation efforts scientists have felt under pressure to argue for the human benefits that would accrue — for instance, calling for forests to be preserved because they can prevent landslides and naturally purify water for human consumption, rather than because forests should be maintained for their own sake.
In some cases the potential for “useful” purposes is contributing to their destruction. The wild yam of South Africa is supposed to have cancer-alleviating properties, according to traditional medicine, but the resulting hunt for the plant is threatening its very existence.
Baillie presents a stark choice: “We have an important moral and ethical decision to make: Do these species have a right to survive or do we have a right to drive them to extinction?”