We all love animals, but this apparently only applies to big, fluffy, cute ones. Our interest in animals heightens when it comes to those that are relevant to us—whether it be by location, aesthetic value, or otherwise—and we are moved when we learn these animals are threatened by extinction. But what about the rest of them? The ones that aren’t so big and pretty? And what do we really know about the extinction risks animals—both cute and not-so-cute—are facing? By addressing knowledge gaps in today’s understanding of conservation, exploring the global cultural importance of species, and familiarizing ourselves with current conservation efforts, we can all stop fixating over how pretty animals are and start saving them.
A new 2016 Biological Conservation article by Dr. Roll and his team at the University of Oxford and Tel Aviv University explores the cultural importance of reptiles as revealed by something as simple as how many times people view the Wikipedia pages of reptiles. Dr. Roll conducted a study to assess quantifiable cultural interest in reptiles while keeping in mind the influence of social perceptions on conservation practices. They learned that there is greater interest in animals that are big, fluffy, and attractive. However, curiosity is also significant for reptiles that are venomous, endangered, and widely distributed, as made evident by the numerous Wikipedia page views for animals such as the Komodo dragon, the salt-water crocodile, and the black mamba. Harnessing data on cultural interest of reptiles can shed light on which regional conservation efforts will accrue the largest support. This results because people find more significance and sympathy for the status of species with which they are more affected by and involved with.
Differing cultural interests could explain the knowledge gaps in reptile conservation, which are addressed in a 2016 Biological Conservation study by Dr. Tingley from The University of Melbourne. We seem to have a firm understanding of the threats that challenge birds, mammals, and amphibians, but this understanding of extinction risks begins to falter in regards to reptiles, which represent a major chunk of Earth’s terrestrial biodiversity. Dr. Tingley and his colleagues at Tel Aviv University and Monash University set out to improve our understanding of reptile conservation needs and extinction risks. They state that “only 45% of described reptile species have been assessed by IUCN to date (4648 of 10,400 species); of these, 20% (945 species) are threatened with extinction, and 19% (867 species) are Data Deficient” (Tingley et al., 2016). This insufficiency of data is one explanation for why reptiles have never been at the forefront of global conservation endeavors.
Nevertheless, there are existing efforts to mitigate the threats of extinction that reptiles have and will continue to face. Current estimates put one-fifth of Earth’s reptiles at risk of extinction, and the major contributors to this statistic are habitat loss, overexploitation, climate change, and invasive species. Research conducted by Dr. Towns and his colleagues at the Auckland University of Technology in a new Biological Conservation study examines recent case studies from New Zealand that portray the decrease in extinction risks for reptiles by means of translocation to offshore islands. By eliminating invasive predators and reintroducing eradicated reptiles into their native territories, the extinction risks of reptiles—specifically the tuatara and 20% of lizard fauna in this particular case study—should be curtailed. Although defining the ecological and genetic success of these reintroduced reptiles will take time, translocations represent a potential approach to improve the conservation status of reptiles.
“Reptiles are an animal interest that have captivated an incredibly diverse cross section of the American demographics; from scientists to school children, Wall Street bankers to construction workers, conservationists, attorneys, teachers, rock stars, actors and even politicians,” says Andrew Wyatt, president of the United States Association of Reptile Keepers in a National Geographic article. However, interest for reptiles also extends beyond American demographics and is widespread on a global scale amongst different cultures. It is this interest that reveals how support and knowledge of reptiles and their conservation practices are influenced by social and cultural factors.
Some conservation biologists may argue that they should act regardless of public influence and instead uphold scientific principles and disregard these dynamics when allocating conservation resources. However, modern conservation calls for social and cultural elements to provide a holistic approach to the practice and to circumvent social challenges, such as the unequal pressure that different species place on human culture and life.
However, as these studies concluded, a lot of Earth’s terrestrial biodiversity—much of which comprises reptiles—is still unknown, both in terms of its conservation status and needs. Current efforts aim to counteract the threats that reptiles face. However, first and foremost, knowledge gaps must be narrowed and a long-term commitment to these conservation practices must be made in order to save an important ecological, aesthetic, and cultural part of the environments in which we live.
Roll, U., et al. “Using Wikipedia page views to explore the cultural importance of global reptiles.” Biological Conservation (2016), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2016.03.037
Tingley, R., et al. “Addressing knowledge gaps in reptile conservation.” Biological Conservation (2016), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2016.07.021
Towns, D.R., et al. “Can translocations to islands reduce extinction risk for reptiles? Case studies from New Zealand.” Biological Conservation (2016), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2016.04.024