Those Adorable Endangered Creatures Are Not the Point

On Dec. 4, the world’s fastest land animal briefly became an influencer. With the encouragement of conservation groups, wildlife fans observed International Cheetah Day with #savethecheetah videos, facts and fund-raising appeals. “The cheetah is racing against extinction! Spread the word,” a post in circulation read.

Conservation groups, urban zoos and makers of animated films have long relied on the charisma of large, fuzzy and highly endangered species to draw attention. Entreaties to save the cheetah, a species that numbers fewer than 7,000 worldwide, raised more than $4 million from U.S. donors last year. Cheetahs do need humans’ help to survive. But by creating and leveraging what one researcher calls “spectacles of extinction,” such campaigns distract from a larger crisis that threatens all species, including ours.

When humans destroy forests, grasslands, swamps, coral reefs and other living systems, we are not only harming other species but also destroying our own food supplies, subjecting our homes to extreme weather and polluting our air and water. Though we treat conservation as an altruistic pursuit — a special interest championed by a passionate few — it’s also a selfish cause. We should approach conservation not as an opportunity for heroics, but as an obligation to the relationships we depend on for survival.

This week, delegates from more than 190 countries are gathered in Montreal for the United Nations Biodiversity Conference, known as COP15, where they are trying to agree on a strategy for halting biodiversity loss by 2030 and reversing it by 2050. Other goals include protection of the estimated one million species that human activity is driving toward extinction, many of which are more immediately threatened by habitat destruction and over-hunting than climate change.

But compared with the 2021 United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, or its follow-up meeting in Egypt last month, this gathering is getting little press coverage. And while there are some protesters in the streets of Montreal, the mass movement for biodiversity is far smaller than the one demanding climate justice.

One reason for the relative quiet may be that it can be easier, and in some cases more satisfying, to focus on spectacles of extinction. Rescuing a threatened species from oblivion is enormously difficult, but it is far simpler than changing our priorities to restore the complex, interdependent systems of life on Earth.

Biodiversity protection is more complicated than climate protection, since it relies less directly on technology such as cheaper solar panels and has fewer clear measures of success.

So we dwell, with appalled fascination, on the northern white rhino, a subspecies that has only two surviving members — both female — and whose future may depend on the ability of reproductive scientists to turn skin cells into stem cells and eventually into viable sperm and egg cells. We ponder curiosities such as so-called de-extinction, an unproven technology that may one day succeed in creating a hybrid individual with DNA from extinct and extant species, but will never reverse extinction. Or we post and donate on behalf of vulnerable species on other continents, conflating our concern with effective action. Suzanne Brandon, a Ph.D. student in sociology who studied the experiences of “voluntourists” in Namibia, found that while they felt outrage about the overall plight of the species, they were largely unaware or dismissive of local conservation policies and practices.

That’s the real trouble with spectacles of extinction: By seizing our attention and our hearts, they obscure the countless ongoing efforts to protect biodiversity from the ground up. Throughout the plains of North America, for example, the Indigenous communities whose expertise the conservation movement has long ignored are returning bison to the prairie ecosystem. In watersheds in North America and Europe, beavers, once persecuted as pests, have been embraced by an enthusiastic network of landowners and public-land managers as partners in restoration. Where I live, in the Pacific Northwest, a small, not particularly flashy butterfly called the Fender’s blue inspired a collaboration that has not only recovered the species but helped restore its prairie habitat. And in Namibia, a leader in the worldwide community-led conservation movement, a national system of local conservancies has enabled those who live alongside endangered and other species to both participate in their protection and benefit from the resulting tourism and hunting opportunities. Thanks in part to the sustained efforts of Namibian conservancy members, the country’s cheetah population is not — for now, at least — racing against extinction, but stable.

All of these endeavors are at least a little bit selfish, benefiting their hardworking human participants as well as other species. None, of course, is anything close to a cure-all. But with political savvy and persistence, they are beginning to change attitudes and economies, creating opportunities to fulfill our broader obligations to the rest of life. They need all the support they can get — from the delegates in Montreal, from governments at every level and from all of us whose futures depend on their success.

Michelle Nijhuis is the author of “Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction.”

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