How the cave snail can be more like the giant panda

LIU JIN/AFP Call it the Panda, Inc. phenomenon: Threatened species attract attention, but not in direct proportion to the threat they face. The World Wildlife Fund didn’t choose the panda over the Hispaniolan solenodon for its logo by way of scientific method. Pandas are big business, because everyone loves the cuddly black-and-white furballs. Just ask ...

604545_panda_billboard_05.jpg
604545_panda_billboard_05.jpg

LIU JIN/AFP

Call it the Panda, Inc. phenomenon: Threatened species attract attention, but not in direct proportion to the threat they face. The World Wildlife Fund didn't choose the panda over the Hispaniolan solenodon for its logo by way of scientific method. Pandas are big business, because everyone loves the cuddly black-and-white furballs. Just ask the China National Tourist Office, and closer to home for me, the National Zoo in Washington, DC.

For those of us concerned with biodiversity—which should be everyone, given the stark implications of a worldwide ecosystem collapse—this presents a problem. How can we attract scarce dollars and attention to lower-profile animals like, say, the cave snail, who may not be cute, but is a key player in the global food chain? Here are my top four suggestions:

LIU JIN/AFP

Call it the Panda, Inc. phenomenon: Threatened species attract attention, but not in direct proportion to the threat they face. The World Wildlife Fund didn’t choose the panda over the Hispaniolan solenodon for its logo by way of scientific method. Pandas are big business, because everyone loves the cuddly black-and-white furballs. Just ask the China National Tourist Office, and closer to home for me, the National Zoo in Washington, DC.

For those of us concerned with biodiversity—which should be everyone, given the stark implications of a worldwide ecosystem collapse—this presents a problem. How can we attract scarce dollars and attention to lower-profile animals like, say, the cave snail, who may not be cute, but is a key player in the global food chain? Here are my top four suggestions:

  1. Sell the place, not the species. In a recent paper in Science magazine on global biodiversity priorities, the authors contrasted the ‘Last Chance to See’ approach, meaning the description of highly vulnerable species, with the ‘Shangri-La’ approach, promoting conservation of the world’s few remaining pristine spots. They rightly suggested more attention for the latter tactic. This has worked for Costa Rica, a country that’s built a massive tourist industry out of its astonishing biodiversity.
  2. Monetize. Without realizing it, we all receive free services from the environment. Examples include water purification, pest control, climate regulation, and raw materials of all sorts. All those so-called ecosystem services would be prohibitively expensive to replicate using technology, so we need to keep the whole complicated web of an ecosystem in good working order. Ecosystem services have a theoretical market value, but we’ve been freeloading on them for a while now. Some serious people want to change that. Goldman Sachs recently awarded Woods Hole a grant for research in this area (focused on forests), and the Natural Capital Project was launched in the last quarter of 2006. You can even read an equation-filled academic paper on the application of portfolio theory to ecological services.
  3. Outline the stakes. An authoritative, Stern-like review of biodiversity assessing the cost of action now versus deferral to the next generation would sharpen a lot of minds.
  4. Rebrand. It may sound hokey, but giving the ‘A Bug’s Life’ treatment to key unloved contributors to the world’s biodiversity riches could do a world of good. Imagine Billy Crystal as the voice of Steve the Sardonic Cave Snail, a witty sidekick for Simone the Panda, played by Whoopi Goldberg (hey, she could use the work).

Richard Caines once studied sea anemones, but now plies his trade as a manager in the Environmental and Social Development Department of the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation. Richard is a regular contributor to the Private Sector Development Blog. Writers from the PSDBlog contribute a regular series of posts for Passport entitled “Fighting Poverty With Markets.”

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