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For some it's a question with an obvious answer, for others... it requires some thought. What benefit is there to saving an endangered species from dying out? This article outlines some of the arguments both for—and against—conservation of endangered species.
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What Does Endangered Mean?
Before we begin, a little background. A species is considered endangered if it is at a risk of becoming extinct, which can be due to a number of reasons, from climate change to human influence to even arguably natural causes. So, whether a species is considered endangered or not is not just looking at the current number of specimens existing, but also at the overall trend of species growth or decline and the reasons why.
Of course, there are a number of technical criteria relating to the conservation status of the species, from extinct the wild yet living in captivity to one of absolute least concern. For more information on the technical classes of endangered species and the endangered species themselves, check out the official IUCN Red List of Threatened Species website. Many of the arguments for—and against—saving endangered species work every bit as well for other species, regardless of their conservation status.
Without further ado, here's a rundown:
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Biodiversity & Environmental Health
One of the most frequent arguments put forth for species conservation is to maintain a high biodiversity. That word is exactly what it looks like: the diversity of biological species. Stable biodiversity is taken to be an indicator of the health of the environment, and upsetting this balance can form a sort of positive feedback cycle that in turn endangers more species and throws the entire system into jeopardy. Removing keystone species, be they predators or plants, may entirely destroy the system.
Endangered species may also prove an indicator of human health as well. After the Bald Eagle and other species went up on the endangered species list, the red flag went up regarding the environmental dangers of DDT—and its dangerous effects on human health as well. The appropriate legislation ensued, preventing untold damage to human wellbeing. When the environment goes wrong, it's going to effect humans somehow: endangered species serve as an invaluable warning.
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Many endangered species have long been considered cultural or artistic symbols—which ironically often lead to them becoming endangered species in the first place. The mysticism surrounding tiger pelts and elephant ivory, for instance, has in large part played into the poaching epidemic. An intangible argument, yes, but where would cultures be without such timeless symbols as our most celebrated creatures? Preserving endangered species, thus, has become to many analogous as restoring old cathedrals and temples.
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Many endangered species have also proven to be scientifically useful. Many plants—including countless on the endangered species lists—have proven to be boons to human happiness, for everything from cancer research (Pacific yew) to natural insecticides (scrub mint.) Destroying species before we've even the chance to study them in depth and see nature's own solutions to problems in our society can only do us harm.
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Others argue, however, that too much money is being used to too little of an effect. The conservation efforts often cut local industries short that depend on the same land the species require, like farming, logging and mining. So stunting the local economy often proves all the more deadly for endangered species, as the locals turn to poaching and other illegal, environmentally-damaging alternatives to earn the money to even just feed the kids.
Yet others argue that the cost of conservation is not a cost at all, rather, that it can prove to be quite lucrative. Ecotourism, and people looking for that “last chance to see", has proven to be a successful draw of people. Safari adventures for the exotic and the endangered species of the world bring in money from the developed world to the places where it's needed most—siphoned not only into further conservation efforts, but also the local economy and environmentally friendly businesses. This doesn't hold true just for undeveloped countries, either. The reintroduction of the gray wolf into Yellowstone National Park proved to be a huge draw for tourists, for instance, and much of this money was used to further scientific research into gray wolf conservation.