I recently had an interesting dialogue with Brian Palmer, who writes for the Green Lantern series for Slate Magazine, an online publication of the The Slate Group, a Division of the Washington Post Company.  Brian contacted me to see how I would answer a question that a reader had posed to him, “Which endangered species should I save?”.

[Photo of Dhole, one of the most endangered mammals in the world.  Source: Wikipedia.]

The issue basically is, suppose someone wants to make a difference by making a relatively small donation to help save an endangered species?  How should they go about it?  How can they know their money is doing the most good possible to save an endangered species somewhere in the world?

The question is quite interesting, and one so obvious, that of course, I’d never really thought much about it even though my students and I run the Endangered Species Lab at Washington State University!  But after pondering the matter for a little while, I replied to Brian essentially saying something like the following:

While there are many good sources of information about endangered species on the internet, there really doesn’t seem to be any clearinghouse for individual endangered species conservation projects.  There are so many threatened and endangered species conservation projects around the world, that it would be difficult to know where a person’s money might be put to best use.

One such source of excellent information from a global perspective is that of the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) who publishes the Red List of threatened and endangered species worldwide.  Closer to home, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has an endangered species program, as does our Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.  But even so, it can be difficult to know exactly what to do if you want to help.

Consequently, my advice was twofold.  First, if a donation were relatively small, then one might locate a reputable conservation organization that has a track record of sound conservation activities and make a donation to them, knowing that if enough people contribute even small amounts of money, that it will sum up to make a big difference.

I also suggested an approach that focused on endangered species projects within a local region so that people could make a difference close to where they live.  The tried and true motto “Think Globally.  Act locally.” is highly appropriate.  There are now so many threatened and endangered species that one does not have to look too far from wherever you may live to find a species whose future is in jeopardy.

Many endangered species projects carried out at the state or local level are minimally or poorly funded, if at all.  To find the threatened and endangered species in your area, generally look at your state natural resource or state wildlife agency, and see what kinds of projects are being conducted.  Generally, all states have an endangered species specialist, or perhaps a “non-game” specialist who can help you identify regional wildlife (or plant) conservation projects.

Universities are also good sources of information, although you may have to look through many web sites to locate faculty working on threatened and endangered species.  Relatively small contributions to university projects can make a big difference, and moreover, have the benefits of helping to train the next generation of conservation scientists.

Brian Palmer thought this kind of advice was interesting, because many of the international experts he contacted for opinions on how best to save endangered species talked about the necessity of a “triage” approach – we can’t possibly save every endangered species, so it is necessary to focus on some key species that we still have a chance to save.

When Brian came back to me again and asked for some additional explanation, I told  him that small donations are the equivalent of micro-lending for local conservation organizations and small university programs.  For example, a relatively small amount of money can have a disproportionately large impact when an organization is trying to care for and breed endangered species.

Conservation scientists essentially all agree that the best way to conserve the largest number of threatened and endangered species is to work on large-scale conservation of their habitats and ecosystems.  But even here, small donations can add up to significant differences and on-the-ground impacts when local conservation organizations are able to raise enough money to purchase or otherwise conserve or restore critical local and regional habitats.

In the end, we may lose the battle to save many individual endangered species.  The odds are overwhelmingly against us. But we will be better if in our hearts, we know we at least tried to make a difference.

There’s one thing I do know as an endangered species biologist.  If we give life just half a chance, it will fight to survive.  The first step in saving an endangered species is just to care, and then, to care enough to try and make a difference.  Certainly, always gather credible information and learn from experts whenever you can, but then follow your heart and your passion. You’ll feel better and the world will definitely be a better place for it.

To see the usual masterful job that Brian Palmer did in answering the reader’s question in the Green Lantern column on Slate Magazine, see: So Many Species, So Little Money – Which Endangered Species Should I Save?

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