Is it SAFE…….?

Posted on April 10, 2011

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……Now there’s a question. In the words of Lawrence Olivier as the exiled Nazi war criminal from the classic 1970’s film Marathon Man, it’s a question and now a new scientific acronym that today’s conservationists are also struggling with (minus the pliers).

SAFE (Species Ability to Forestall Extinction) is the latest method that Australian researchers from the University of Adelaide and James Cook University, in northern Queensland, have devised to predict how close species are to disappearing altogether. What about the International Union for Conservation of Nature‘s (IUCN) Red List I hear you squeal. Well researchers of the new index say despite the IUCN listing plants and animals in categories varying form safe to critically endangered, it does not distinguish between species at the top and bottom of a category, which is where SAFE differs.

Researchers say SAFE will help organisations and governments to prioritise where already scare funding should be distributed in conservation.

golden lion tamarin, one of the 95 mammals examined under the SAFE index

One of the authors of the index, Professor Corey Bradshaw, director of ecological modelling at Adelaide’s Environment Institute, says it’s the “best predictor yet of vulnerability of mammal species to extinction” and is designed to enhance the  IUCN Red List and not for their metric to be looked at “exclusively”.

He told me: “A lot of those categories are based on, somewhat arbitrary thresholds for how much a species has declined over a certain period of time, or how much its range has contracted, those thresholds don’t equate to extinction risk itself and there is also a lot of expert opinion – so there is some subjectivity involved.

“Decisions have to be made within the context of science and social considerations. I think there are certainly people who will argue with me that we should save everything. I’d love to save everything, I just don’t think we can.

“Demographic factors have to be taken into account as do ecological function – which is the least understood among taxa – if numbers cannot be pushed up, we have to ask ourselves are we just postponing the inevitable?”

The creators of SAFE say it can predict how close a population is to its minimum viable size. Published in the Frontiers in Ecology and Environment, it’s likely to controversially open up a debate on determining which species  conservationists should focus on saving and which, should be allowed to die out.

To test their formula,researchers applied it to 95 mammal species on the IUCN Red List. They found that nearly one-fifth were close to extinction, and more than half of those had populations that had already fallen to unsustainable levels. Among the primates in that list were the golden lion tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia) and the woolly spider monkey (Brachyteles arachnoides).

woolly spider monkey one of the 95 mammals examined under the SAFE index

Professor Bradshaw said, “Like anything it’s a probability. If we have something that has a very poor SAFE index, we would just simply say it has a higher probability of going extinct than something with a higher SAFE index. It’s a probability, we’re not saying it will go extinct, it has a much higher probability of going extinct.

“The number one anthropogenic activity that has increased extinction risk is without doubt habitat loss. If we take primates as an example, restricting species to pockets of forest, will inevitably impact on their population.”

According to Professor Bradshaw the tipping-point for a species is 5,000, below that number it’s much harder to bring back from the brink, the tiger is very close to this figure.

He added: “I wouldn’t go so far as to say we shouldn’t save them, but species that are numbering in the 100’s, for example some of Australia’s smaller mammals that have been nailed by feral predators, it’s probably not worthwhile putting a lot of effort in, because there’s just no chance.”

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