Save "Poster Species" First, Conservation Study Says

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
July 13, 2005

The mission statement of the Wildlife Conservation Society says the New York-based environmental advocacy group saves wildlife and wild lands.

That, presumably, means all wildlife.

Yet a quick glance at the organization's Web site suggests that most of its projects are focused squarely on the protection of top predators, from tigers to grizzly bears.

It is a common strategy. Conservationists routinely use charismatic predators as poster animals to attract support for environmental-protection campaigns.

According to Joel Berger, a senior scientist at the WCS's Teton, Wyoming, field office, "Elephants and gorillas garner far more public and often scientific interest than do rats."

But the strategy of focusing on the top predators has sometimes been criticized for being unscientific.

Yet a new study shows that top predators are consistently associated with higher biodiversity than species lower down the food chain. "Biodiversity" refers to the variety of plant and animal species living in a given place.

The study, which will be reported tomorrow in the journal Nature, suggests that conservationists are justified—on ecological grounds—to use top predators to attract financial and public support.

Broader Biodiversity

Fabrizio Sergio at the Estación Biológica de Doñana in Seville, Spain, and colleagues compared the biodiversity in areas of the Italian Alps that contained breeding raptors—owls, hawks, and other predatory birds—to that of randomly selected sites.

They found that, contrasted with the control sites, locations occupied by top predators had greater numbers of plants and animals and more diversity of bird, butterfly, and tree species.

"Our results are evidence of a tight association, at least in some biological systems, between apex predators and high biodiversity," the authors wrote. "[This] indicate[s] that conservation focusing on top predators can be ecologically justified, because it delivers broader biodiversity benefits."

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