Saving critically endangered vertebrates is possible, but requires urgency and investment

Immediate conservation action and an investment of an estimated US$1.3 million per species will significantly increase the chances of survival for vertebrates on the brink of extinction.

A paper published today in Current Biology concluded that a subset of endangered vertebrates can be saved, but only if conservation efforts are implemented immediately and with an investment of an estimated US$1.3 million per species annually to ensure the species’ habitat protection and management.

Researchers developed a “conservation opportunity index” using measurable indicators to quantify the possibility of achieving successful conservation of a species, both in its natural habitat and by establishing insurance populations in zoos. They computed the cost of, and opportunities for, conserving 841 species of mammals, reptiles, birds and amphibians listed by the Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE; as restricted to single sites and categorized as Endangered or Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

“AZE sites are arguably the most irreplaceable category of important biodiversity conservation sites,” said Dr. Dalia A. Conde, lead author on the paper and Assistant Professor at the Max-Planck Odense Center at the University of Southern Denmark. “Conservation opportunity evaluations like ours show the urgency of implementing management actions before it is too late. It is imperative to rationally determine actions for species that we found to have the lowest chances of successful habitat and zoo conservation actions.”

While the study indicated that 39% of the species scored high for conservation opportunities, it also showed that at least 15 AZE species are in imminent danger of extinction given their low conservation opportunity index. This low index is due to one or a combination of different factors such as: high probability of its habitat becoming urbanized, political instability in the site and/or high costs of habitat protection and management. Additionally, the opportunity of establishing an insurance population in zoos for these 15 species is low, either due to high costs or lack of breeding expertise for the species.

The estimated total cost to conserve the 841 vertebrates in their natural habitats was calculated to be over US$1 billion total per year. The estimated annual cost for complementary management in zoos was US$160 million.

“Although the cost seems high, safeguarding these species is essential if we want to reduce the extinction rate by 2020,” said Prof. Hugh Possingham from The University of Queensland. “When compared to global government spending on other sectors (e.g., US defense spending, which is more than 500 times greater), an investment in protecting high biodiversity value sites is minor.”

The multi-disciplinary research team was led by Dr. Dalia A. Conde and Prof. John E. Fa from Imperial College London (formerly at Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust) and scientists from the Max-Planck Odense Center at the University of Southern Denmark, The University of Queensland, Texas A&M University, American Bird Conservancy, IUCN SSC Conservation Breeding Specialist Group, International Species Information System and World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Prof. John E. Fa said, “Our exercise gives us hope for saving many highly endangered species from extinction, but actions need to be taken immediately and, for species restricted to one location, an integrative conservation approach is needed.”

The paper stated the importance of integrating protection of the places these particular species inhabit with complementary zoo insurance population programmes. According to Dr. Onnie Byers, Chair of the IUCN SSC Conservation Breeding Specialist Group, “The question is not one of protecting a species in the wild or in zoos. The One Plan approach – effective integration of planning, and the optimal use of limited resources, across the spectrum of management from wild to zoo – is essential if we are to have a hope of achieving the Aichi Biodiversity Targets.”

Dr. Nate Flesness, Scientific Director of the International Species Information System, stressed “We want to thank the more than 800 zoos in 87 countries which contribute animal and collection data to the International Species Information System, where the assembled global data enables strategic conservation studies like this.”

Dr. Markus Gusset of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums added that “Actions that range from habitat protection to the establishment of insurance populations in zoos will be needed if we want to increase the chances of species’ survival.”

View the paper at

Dalia A. Conde, Max-Planck Odense Center, University of Southern Denmark
Phone: +45 65502704
Address: Campusvej 55, 5230 Odense M. Denmark

John E. Fa
Phone: +44 7732161443

Hugh Possingham, The University of Queesland
Phone: +61 434 079 061 (txt or email first, travelling all March)