Is survival of species more dependent on human preference than biological requirements?
Before reading on, rank your willingness to pay to conserve each of the species pictured below.
Human impacts such as overexploitation, pollution, forced habitat loss and introduction of invasive species have caused extinction rate to skyrocket >1000x background rates; consequently, 150 species are lost each day. The IUCN red list depicts 32,000 species as threatened with extinction, with a further 6,811 species critically endangered. Wildlife conservation is of utmost importance for preservation of a healthy planet and combatting biodiversity loss, yet conservation success varies dependent on public concern.
Retrospectively, studies have shown that species’ physiological characteristics affects public support of their conservation. In 1993, Plous proposed the Similar Principe Theory, whereby animals that are more physiologically similar to humans (e.g. forward-facing eyes, human-esque hands and feet) are seen as more relatable/appealing and thus worthier of our empathy and support. This is supported by Tisdell et al’s findings (2006) whereby primates are more likely to elicit positive emotional responses due to close similarity with humans, whereas invertebrates elicit more aversive emotional responses due to their dissimilarity with our own species. Furthermore, Metrick and Weitzman (1996) found that “likeability” of a species determines whether conservation will be funded or even given legislative protection. This “likeability” may arise from their value to us, including; commercial value (e.g. food, medicine, tourism), existence value (pleasure from knowing it exists) and contributory value (ecological problems from extinction). Redmond (2018) further consolidated this, finding that of Canadian lynx [Lynx canadensis], American marten [Martes americana], or northern long-eared bat [Myotis septentrionalis], willingness to pay for conservation (WTP) highly correlated with visual appeal. The Lynx greater physiological similarity to humans in size and facial features as well as having existence value, therefore was consistently and considerably rated higher for WTP. In comparison, the anatomy of bats is very dissimilar to humans (e.g. long ears and winged claws), thus were consistently rated lower — despite having similar conservation status. These studies suggest that the public would permit the decline, or even extinction, of a species that does not appeal physiologically or characteristically.
This is vastly complex, as many endangered species may not be charismatic or physiologically similar to ourselves — but this should not mean they are not worthy of protection. Public preference should not have a place over ecological or scientific considerations in conservation.
What do you think should be the main determinant for conserving a species?
Is your WTP decision still the same? Was your original answer influenced by physiology of the animals?