Mammal Triage

Like paramedics rolling up to the site of a deadly car pile-up, conservationists argue that it’s time to triage. In a recent analysis, researchers rank conservation priorities based on how easy a species might be to save — rather than acting first to save those facing the most dire extinction risks. The approach could spell good news for some species, like the relatively ignored Saiga antelope, but bad news for the iconic Javan rhinoceros.

That rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus), a horned herbivore native to Southeast Asia, is certainly in need of help. It’s among the more than 1,000 species of land mammals–amounting to nearly one-quarter of non-aquatic species–currently considered threatened, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). And the rhino is in worse shape than most, with just a handful alive in a tiny park in Indonesia.

Overall, however, such rapidly hemorrhaging species might not be the top candidates for conservation dollars, argue Moreno di Marco of the Sapienza University of Rome and colleagues. To figure out which species should get attention first, di Marco’s team ran a simple analysis. They started off by ranking the most endangered mammals, according to the IUCN’s data, as those in need of the most urgent attention. But, then, the team also considered those species’ momentums. In other words, how were biological factors–such as the rhino’s slim range or minuscule genetic diverse–stacking the cards against them?

In Conservation Letters, di Marco and colleagues ranked mammals from 1 to 966 based on their potential for rescue. The Javan rhinocerous ended up near the bottom, at 962nd, meaning that the herbivore could go extinct regardless of hefty efforts put into saving it. The Saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica), on the other hand, fared much better, landing 5th. This grazer has also been shunted to a narrow corner of the globe–in its case, a small strip of Mongolia. But its population numbers in the tens of thousands, giving it a better base to recover in the future. Other critically endangered species potentially facing a rosier future included the Fiji monkey-faced bat (Mirimiri acrodonta) and the small marsupial from New Guinea, the black-spotted cucus (Spilocuscus rifoniger).

Currently, struggling rhinoceroses and other low-ranking animals draw a lot of dollars and goodwill, making their odds potentially not as bad as they look, the researchers say. Still, as extinctions loom, they argue, conservationists will face tough decisions. Daniel Strain | March 5, 2012

Source: di Marco M et al. (2012) A novel approach for global mammal extinction risk reduction. Conservation Letters. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1755-263X.2011.00219.x/abstract . DOI: 10.1111/j.1755-263X.2011.00219.x.

Image © Jamie800 | Dreamstime.com

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