Why rare species conservation might not matter for feeding everyone well

Unfortunately, there are more pressing issues than rare species conservation for feeding everyone well.

The needs wants, and desires of 8 billion people are at odds with rare species conservation. Humanity has already pushed and breached critical planetary boundaries, and we are living precariously just to feed ourselves, let alone find space for nature in the habitable regions of the planet. 

Our energy use and resource consumption produce waste also impacts the uninhabitable parts from the deep oceans to the Arctic tundra. Humans genuinely are a phenomenon.

So does rare species conservation have a chance? 

A slim one, given that already 97% of the mammalian biomass on earth is livestock, and our pledges are failing to reverse biodiversity loss

Over on our sister blog Alloporus|Ideas for healthy thinking, I have explained why biodiversity and conservation are not the same, so here will focus on rare species conservation and explore the slim chance a little deeper. 

Biodiversity and rare species conservation

As the late, remarkable scientist Professor Ed Wilson succinctly put it, biodiversity, the diversity of life, is the consequence of evolution and ecology—the outcomes of interactions between organisms in time and place. 

One outcome of ecology over evolutionary time is an extraordinary profusion of organisms. There are so many different types that there is no single catalogue. Indeed, Australian taxonomists, the scientists who describe and catalogue the variety of life, estimate that $824m is needed over the next 25 years to complete the biodiversity record for the island continent.  

Meanwhile, the New South Wales government has set a target of zero extinctions of native wildlife in the state’s national parks estate, the first time an Australian government has set the goal.  Zero extinction is impossible to prove, not for want of on-ground effort or technical skill, but because the species catalogue is incomplete. 

But already, I digress.

Species are just one of the outcomes of evolution contained within ‘the diversity of life’.

Biodiversity is about biology, what it is and what it does, and not just the number of different organism types. 

In contrast, conservation is a value, not an object, thing, or process. And the key to understanding this particular human perception is that rare is more valuable than common

However, humans also value clean air, clean water, and food. These essentials are delivered primarily by the actions of biodiversity, particularly the common species.  Indeed there are very few times when rare species are pivotal to these essential services. 

A little thought and this truth is clear. A rare organism is infrequent by definition, and it cannot, by biomass or weight of numbers, influence services. The only way a rare species can affect services is to engineer the environment, such as a beaver building a dam that alters the transfer of nutrients and water across the landscape.

Rare, as in endangered or threatened, rarely matters for ecosystem services.

Young lioness shy of the camera in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe

I was lucky to take this photo of a young lioness in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, in the early 1990s.

Why rare species conservation might not matter 

The reason for distinguishing between rare and common species in the context of human needs from nature is ecology

Ecology (from Greek: οἶκος, “house” and -λογία, “study of”) is the study of the relationships between living organisms, including humans, …and their physical environment

The interactions between organisms capture and convert energy from the sun into biomass (plants) and then transfer that energy through systems (plants and animals) are moderated by the availability of water and sunlight. 

This simplistic description of ecology is what keeps people alive.

Ecology gives humans food, clean water, and many valuable products—collectively, we call this natural capital, natural resources, or ecosystem services.

This truth is fundamental to human existence.  We would only exist with ecology, for even the most intensive farming systems rely on interactions between microbes and plants. 

It is why ‘sustainably FED’ put E between food and diet and created a category of food ecology—the engine room of food production for subsistence and intensive agriculture—that will determine how well humanity fares over the next 30 years.

Fur, feathers and fins 

A fixation on iconic species with fur or feathers is all very well, and there is moral, cultural and existential value in rare species conservation. Trying hard to save iconic species is a focus that might help us avoid insanity; help bring us back from the brink.

In this regard, all conservation is worth it.

The problem is that rare species conservation is not the highest priority. The species combinations that deliver and maintain critical services in the landscape need our full attention. The common species allow humans to persist, especially those in agricultural landscapes.  

And these species are not often those in danger of extinction. But their abundance and distribution are changing. For example, insects in a selection of nature reserves in Germany have declined by 75% in a generation. This level of decline is dramatic. If it happened to global stock exchanges, people would panic. There would be a run on the banks, a great depression would be declared and the fragile financial house of cards would collapse along with the six-continent food supply chain.

Given what insects do to transfer nutrients, food chain stability and pollination—just three of the critical ecosystem services—we should also be panicked by these changes.

The erosion of ecosystem services is more critical to humanity than the loss of rare species. 

White Rhino mother and mature calf in Hwange NP, Zimbabwe. All the big mammals of Africa will join the rhinos in the rare species conservation category.

I took this photo in the late 1980s of a White Rhino mother and mature calf in Hwange NP, Zimbabwe. All the big mammals of Africa will join the rhinos in the rare species conservation category.

A shift from the rare to the common.

Promotion of the common over the rare sounds callous, but remember, there are 8 billion people who need food, water, and shelter. There is an unprecedented demand for ecosystem services, just when many are dramatically declining.

If all the critically endangered species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species were to go extinct, it would be a cultural and moral disaster. Such a tragedy would leave a lasting sadness.

But it would not be the end of the world. 

Humanity would still till the soil, plant grains, rear livestock and eat. Should the rarities be lost, agriculture would not because nature has an uncanny knack for persistence.  There would still be ecology because nature will always occupy available space and continue to have organisms interacting to transfer energy and nutrients around.

The persistence of nature is critical and brings us to the pivotal diversity of life, the biodiversity that humanity relies on without even realising it—the biodiversity that we must have is in the soil.

The tens of thousands of species that live in each square meter of soil are essential for the nutrient transfer, water retention and soil health that delivers crops and livestock production. Humanity might live in high-rise blocks, drive electric cars and rocket into space, but all this depends on food grown in soil.

Just a few know this.

Most people have no reason to think about this version of biodiversity. After all, food comes from the fridge or the supermarket, depending on which family member you are. 

Perhaps the attention to rare species conservation is our subconscious feeling the intimate connection and reliance we have on nature, and expressing that connection through something our conscious brains can grasp.

dung beetle burying elephant dung in Hwange NP, Zimbabwe.

I took this photo in the late 1980s of a dung beetle burying elephant dung in Hwange NP, Zimbabwe.

What sustainably FED suggests…

Rare species conservation does not matter for feeding everyone well. There are more pressing issues that we have to fix or risk even greater catastrophe than the loss of some iconic species.

Humanity must increase food production by 2% for the next 30 years to feed everyone well. Then these increases must be maintained long enough for the demographic transition to pass. If we fail to produce enough food, it will destabilize the economic and social systems, and we will crash and burn. 

Hope for avoiding catastrophe is to focus on soils. And to focus on the natural capital of our environment to ensure that, along with other technical fixes we can grow enough food so that at least we don’t have a war over our primary resource. 

This sounds dramatic, but there is no obvious argument against it. 

Any extinction is tragic, especially those that are preventable. But focusing on rare species conservation at the expense of critical diversity that delivers services, especially in soil, is short-sighted.

Saving the koala is great, but not if there is insufficient food to feed all the people and their pets.

Think about it.

Science source

Hallmann C.A., Sorg M., Jongejans E., Siepel H., Hofland N., Schwan H., Stenmans W., Müller A., Sumser H., Hörren T., Goulson D., de Kroon H. (2017) More than 75% decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas. PLoS ONE, 12(10), eo185809

Hero image from a photo by MD_JERRY on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

Add comment

Subscribe to our explainer series

* indicates required

Most discussed