Measuring conservation success

Image credit: Andrey Gilev and Karina Karenina

Dr Molly Grace, NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellow in the Oxford University Department of Zoology, discusses the potential impact of IUCN Green Species List, a framework for a standard way of measuring conservation success. A project that she and the team at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science played a key role in developing.

What is the goal of species conservation? Many would say that it is to prevent extinctions. However, while this is a necessary first step, conservationists have long recognized that it should not be the end goal. Once a species is stabilised, we can then turn our attention to the business of recovery - trying to restore species as functional parts of the ecosystems from which humans have displaced them. However, to do this, there must be a rigorous and objective way to measure recovery. 

Imagine this scenario: A species is teetering on the brink of extinction. In fact, it has been classified on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (the global standard for measuring extinction risk) as Critically Endangered. You rally a global team of scientists, conservation planners, and land managers to put their heads together and figure out how to save this species. This team works relentlessly to bring this species back from the edge, and little by little, the species improves. After years, or even decades, of work, the team achieves its goal— the species is no longer considered threatened with a risk of extinction! However, no one is celebrating—in fact, the mood has become decidedly sombre.

There is a simple reason for this apparent paradox, due to limited conservation budgets, species which are classified as being at risk of extinction are preferentially awarded funding. While this makes sense at a wide scale - of course we should be working hardest to save the species which face an imminent risk of vanishing from the planet - it poses a problem for species who have benefited from concerted conservation actions and are no longer in the “danger zone.” Once the threatened classification vanishes, often so does funding. Without continued protections, species may slip back into the threatened category, nullifying the effect of decades of work. Thus, there is a perverse incentive to stay in the exclusive “highly endangered” club - at least on paper. But this prevents us from celebrating the huge difference that conservation can make.

With the creation of the IUCN Green List of Species, we hope to reverse this perverse incentive to downplay conservation success. The Green List, still in development, will assess species recovery and how conservation actions have contributed to species recovery. It will also calculate the dependence of the species on continued conservation, by estimating what would happen if these efforts stopped. This can be used as an argument for continued conservation funding. With the Green List working in tandem, we can stop thinking of Red List “downlisting”— moving from a high category of extinction risk, to a lower one—as a demotion which disincentivises funding, but rather see it for what it truly is: a promotion which should be celebrated. The framework would be applicable across all forms of life on the planet: aquatic and terrestrial species, plant, animal, and fungal species, narrow endemics to wide-ranging species, you name it.

In our recent paper, we presented this framework, which will potentially measure recovery and work in tandem with the assessment of extinction risk (IUCN Red List) to tell the story of a species. For example, a species that is in no danger of disappearing from the planet (Red List assessment) might nonetheless be absent from many parts of the world in which it was previously found, and so cannot be considered fully recovered (Green List assessment). The local loss of a species can have cascading effects on the rest of the ecosystem.

The Green List of Species also assesses the impact that conservation efforts have had, and could have in the future. For example, the charismatic saiga antelope (Saiga tartarica), found throughout Central Asia, is currently considered “Critically Endangered” on the Red List. However, our Green List assessment shows that in the absence of past conservation efforts, many more populations would be extinct or in worse shape today. We also show that with continued conservation, the saiga's future prospects are bright—a low risk of extinction, reestablishment of populations where they are locally extinct, and some functional populations.

We hope that the Green List of Species will help to encourage and incentivise more ambitious conservation goals, moving beyond triage at the edge of extinction.

If the Green List sparks optimism within you and you’d like to get involved in the process, you can learn more here