The numbers game- Saving species needs a shift in values
Playing the "numbers game" is not good enough when it comes to identifying what species are at risk from extinction, says Nicolas Entrup. In this week's Green Room, he argues that we need to re-evaluate how we decide what creatures need our help to survive.
The recent assessment of the conservation status of the world's whale and dolphin species has provided a good opportunity to discuss an important question.
That is, is our current approach to the conservation and protection of cetacean species a success story or a dead end?
The survey by IUCN, the global conservation body, reported that nearly a quarter of cetacean species were considered threatened.
Of those, more than 10% were listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered, the highest categories of threat.
The real situation could be much worse, it added, as more than half of the cetacean species (44 species) are classified as Data Deficient, meaning future research needs to be a priority.
The IUCN's review was done by various experts around the world and is based on criteria that define categories highlighting the threat of extinction to each species.
It is not my intention here to initiate a debate about the classification criteria used to define conservation status, but to challenge the concept used by decision makers who base their conservation decisions on what some people call "the numbers game".
Out of focus
The current practice applied within various international conventions and in the application of legislation is that the more threatened a species is (in terms of the number of specimens estimated to exist) the higher its protection status.
The result is that the species should receive more attention in terms of conservation measures taken, and get more funding from governments in order to prevent it becoming extinct.
This premise raises various questions. Does the prevailing theory prevent species from declining prior to reaching a status of such significant potentially irreversible concern?
Do we base our intention to protect marine species on the assumptions for their abundance in a vast region (whole oceans)? Or do we recognise whales and dolphins as highly evolved mammals living in complex social units, which we also wish to protect?
In late 2006, an intensive and expensive survey programme to search for Chinese river dolphins in the Yangtze resulted in no sightings.
The resulting conclusion was that this species, also known as the baiji, was most likely extinct. Gone forever.
Now, as the Austrian delegate put it at the last annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in June 2008: "We may be faced with [the extinction of] another one - the vaquita in Mexico.
"There are several more on the list, both small and large cetaceans," he continued.
"Clearly, we are called upon to act before the status of a stock or a species reaches that level of concern, particularly if the threat is of a relatively simple nature, for example directed takes."
He was referring to the Amazon River dolphin (classified as Data Deficient in the IUCN Red List) and the Dall's porpoise (classified as Least Concern).
This was a clear call to implement conservation measures in advance of the reduction of certain species or populations to a level where they just occur in tiny numbers.
The Mexican government informed the IWC that $19m (£9.5m) would be spent in the coming years to prevent the extinction of the vaquita, which has an estimated population of about 150 animals.
Every cent is worth the effort; but did the situation really need to reach this stage?
Wouldn't a more precautionary approach to prevent such a scenario in the first place be wiser and cheaper?
Fishing for solutions
Let's take a look at the situation of a much more abundant species: the common dolphin.
The IUCN has classified the species as Least Concern, while the Mediterranean subpopulation, classified as Endangered, is facing a decline of more than 50% of its original abundance over the past 40 years.
However, the real tragedy is revealed when you look at the situation of common dolphins in more detail.
Once the most populous cetacean species in the Mediterranean, common dolphins have totally disappeared from the Adriatic Sea and are going to become locally extinct in the eastern Ionian Sea probably within the next decade.
This situation is well documented in various scientific publications by scientists, such as Giovanni Bearzi, who have been studying these dolphins for about two decades.
The reason for its decline in the eastern Ionian Sea, where common dolphins are less numerous than the vaquita, is prey depletion as a result of overfishing.
There has been a long history of mismanagement of human fisheries practices and a failure of government action in this region, but the key problem today is caused by just nine purse seiners.
These are nine boats that could just switch their fishing methods to a more sustainable one and dramatically increase the local common dolphin population's chances of survival. But so far, conservation actions just exist on paper.
Let's face it, while a species like the common dolphin is of Least Concern on a global scale, population units in various regions - including in some regions we might not even be aware of - have become extinct or continue to decline towards extinction.
If a society has a real interest in the protection of whales and dolphins, then a change in our values is needed.
We need a classification system and political action that is based on respect towards individual animals and focuses on the protection of marine mammals within their social units and their habitats.
Nicolas Entrup is managing director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) Germany
The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website