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Rare Species: Icons or Bygones?

Conserving the rarity of species is framed as a victory in the race to stop biodiversity loss, but is it actually effective? By focusing on the aesthetic appeal of a panda in a bamboo forest, or an elephant in a savanna, it becomes easy to believe we have reached the finish line at the end of the race. We must be there now if we can observe previously unforeseen phenomena in Nature. We must have won. This rhetoric, often echoed by Nature documentaries and media publications (Sullivan, 2016), masks a more sinister reality hidden underneath all the beauty. The race cannot be won if it started at the wrong jumping-off point.

Biodiversity loss has gained traction as a global issue because of the perceived economic valuation placed on ecosystems and wild Nature predicated by the ecosystem services model (Thompson, 2011). This model has ensured widespread attention on the importance of preserving the world’s flora and fauna for sustainable human living (Costanza, 2020). It is intrinsically part of our human nature to invest in a problem with a self-serving agenda. If it benefits society, then it must provide value to human existence, and therefore it is deemed as essential to conserve.

But we cannot have it both ways. Logically, the conservation of rare species does not add much monetary value to our collective society (Thompson, 2011). Every year, billions of dollars are flushed into constructing nature reserves for the Giant pandas in China, with not much gained in return in terms of providing beneficial services to the economy (Song, Zhou & Gao, 2021). In European zoos, conservation projects for African elephants can often end up being too costly given the species' high mortality rates (Kopnina, 2016). In reality, conserving rarity only serves to morally soothe our egos. However, by doing so, it projects to the public a victorious message on biodiversity loss that rings true but in reality is more of an empty promise.

AI-generated image of African elephant in its natural habitat
AI-generated image of Giant panda in its natural habitat

Conserving rare species is seen as increasing the variety (or, scientifically, the species richness) of an ecosystem, but variety does not necessarily result in productivity. Because species richness is measured by the presence/absence of species, the overall net effect on productivity is negligible (Chalcraft et al., 2009). Essentially, because rare species are too sparse, they would not have an effect on the functioning of an ecosystem. Conservation efforts targeting rare species are motivated by the notion of being ‘haunted’ by biodiversity loss, which sensationalises the biodiversity crisis itself and frames it as requiring urgent action (McCorristine & Adams, 2020). This catastrophisation then further fuels politicised moral discourses on our obligation to right the wrongs of our hunter-gatherer ancestors (Bryant, 2000).

AI-generated image of mundane species

Our efforts would be best placed elsewhere. Specifically, on mundane species that are perhaps uglier, but would generate higher productivity outputs and services that are essential to human life (Thompson, 2011). More biodiverse ecosystems do in fact generate higher productivity on average, but this is not a result of their variety (Chalcraft et al., 2009). These biodiverse ecosystems rather contain species on lower trophic levels that display higher abundances (scientifically, species abundance as measure of biodiversity) which produce more productive ecosystems. Organisms that consume decaying organic matter (under the detritivore trophic group) are perfect for this. These include bacteria, fungi, insects and worms (Cardinale et al., 2006). Under the ecosystem services model, focusing our conservation efforts on these would be the best way to tackle global biodiversity loss (Thompson, 2011).

In the public eye, biodiversity conservation is synonymous with the preservation of rare flagship species. Iconically, these species are emblematic of a global effort to restore the wonder of Nature lost to human folly. But this takes away from the issue at hand: by focusing on rare species, we are not preserving the biodiversity crucial to sustained human living (Thompson, 2011). Conserving rarity is framed as a moral victory in the race to stop biodiversity loss, but the jumping off-point misses its mark. World leaders today are looking for solutions that appease the morals of the public, but in doing so they are emptying their own wallets into efforts that are both bleeding them dry and failing to generate sustainable solutions to human living.



  • Bryant, Raymond L. “Politicized Moral Geographies.” Political Geography 19, no. 6 (2000): 673–705.

  • Cardinale, Bradley J., Diane S. Srivastava, J. Emmett Duffy, Justin P. Wright, Amy L. Downing, Mahesh Sankaran, and Claire Jouseau. “Effects of Biodiversity on the Functioning of Trophic Groups and Ecosystems.” Nature 443, no. 7114 (2006): 989–92.

  • Chalcraft, David R., Brian J. Wilsey, Christy Bowles, and Michael R. Willig. “The Relationship between Productivity and Multiple Aspects of Biodiversity in Six Grassland Communities.” Biodiversity and Conservation 18, no. 1 (2009): 91–104.

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  • Kopnina, Helen. “Wild Animals and Justice: The Case of the Dead Elephant in the Room.” Journal of International Wildlife Law & Policy 19, no. 3 (2016): 219–35.

  • McCorristine, Shane, and William M Adams. “Ghost Species: Spectral Geographies of Biodiversity Conservation.” cultural geographies 27, no. 1 (2020): 101–15.

  • Song, Zhenjiang, Wei Zhou, and Lan Gao. “Development of Giant Panda Nature Reserves in China: Achievements and Problems.” Journal of Forest Economics 36, no. 1-2 (2021): 1–25.

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  • Thompson, Ken. Do We Need Pandas?: The Uncomfortable Truth about Biodiversity. Totnes: Green Books, 2011.

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