Smart spending for ‘flagship’ species – Expert reaction

Smart spending of private conservation funding for individual ‘charismatic’ species can significantly benefit other species, say the authors of a new study.

Kiwi coinIn New Zealand, the Department of Conservation (DOC) runs a National Partnership sponsorship programme, allowing companies to sponsor an individual, iconic ‘flagship’ species such as the kiwi, kakapo or takahe. Some experts have criticised this type of programme as being subjective and inefficient compared to a cost-effectiveness approach that allocates funding in a way which gets the most ‘bang for buck’.

Australian and New Zealand researchers – including DOC staff – have now picked apart the species sponsorship funding model, using New Zealand data to show how this conservation funding can be spent to benefit multiple threatened species.

They show that if money earmarked for an individual flagship species is prioritised towards projects that will benefit other threatened species simultaneously the expected conservation gains can be more than doubled.

The research is published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

The Science Media Centre collected the following expert commentary on the research.

Dr James Russell, Senior Lecturer, Biodiversity, Biosecurity and Conservation, University of Auckland, comments:

“This new analysis shows that in the fight to save New Zealand’s species from extinction, private funding plays a major role supporting existing conservation projects. In particular, private funding for flagship species, such as our native birds, can be used strategically to create additional benefits for other species. With conservation philanthropy on the increase, it is important we determine the most efficient ways to spend additional funds supporting the Department of Conservation’s core work.

“The New Zealand Department of Conservation recently went through its largest re-structure since its inception in 1988, which created whole new ways in which the Department receives and spends funding. In particular we have seen a democratisation of conservation, where private individuals and companies must also shoulder some of the responsibility for conserving New Zealand’s fauna and flora. It is no longer just the responsibility of the Department of Conservation to do conservation. This has been matched with a willingness from New Zealand philanthropy and donations to make a demonstrated difference.

“The overall message from the research is that as well as donating money for specific species projects, there is a growing important role for general donations to conservation, which agencies like the Department of Conservation can then choose how to spend most optimally. But importantly, we mustn’t forget that even though economic optimisations such as these are important, conservation is more than just using an equation to determine the best management decisions. Money is important, but understanding which species New Zealanders value and donors also value is equally important.”

Dr Wayne Linklater, Director of the Centre for Biodiversity and Restoration Ecology, Victoria University Wellington, comments:

“Private conservation funding in New Zealand is growing, and growing rapidly. Thank goodness for it, because we need it. Public funding for conservation is not enough to halt further species declines and extinctions, let alone recover those species already in trouble.

“Policy diversity begets biodiversity – the more tools we can apply the greater variety of good outcomes that are possible. Private funding of iconic species is a new and increasingly used tool in New Zealand and through it outcomes will be achieved that would not otherwise be possible.

“The 10 species in the article which benefited from private-public partnerships are just a few, perhaps only a quarter to a third, of NZ species that might attract private funding. The potential is for rapid economic growth in privately funded conservation.

“Consider also that many of the programs to conserve NZ’s iconic species are inefficient. They are expensive and success is unlikely. Indeed, those iconic species will probably be reliant on a high-cost conservation investment for a very long time to come. Where, however, their iconic status can also attract private funding, they can at least improve investment and outcomes for other species.

“Although the authors do not consider it, we shouldn’t also discount the potential for private funding of habitat, landscapes, and ecosystem functions. Some with cash to spare will be attracted to the idea of supporting many species at once – communities of plants and animals, landscape vistas, or particular services that the ecosystem provides, like animal pollination or drinking water quality. We know that conservation at such larger scales, when it is possible, is more efficient at conserving biodiversity. I expect private funding for those things would result in even larger gains in plant and animal conservation than those described by the authors who focussed only on privately funding of individual species.

“But we shouldn’t make the mistake of believing that any one policy will do the job on its own. Private funding for conservation is just one tool in our toolbox and we need to learn how to use it well and when it is best used. This is our next challenge.

“For many however, private funding will distort what would be regard as sensible conservation priorities. The debate about what is important and what is not will continue. And it should. The debate is important. The author’s however, go some way to demonstrating that private funding is a help, not a hindrance. Nevertheless, not all private funding is the same. In time, conservationists will also be challenged to structure funding and discriminate amongst private funders to ensure that conservation is not prejudiced by a few elites.

“In particular, when considering private funding for conservation we should not forget the enormous amount of conservation in New Zealand done by individuals and communities that is not quantified in money terms but is nonetheless, also privately funded conservation. It is New Zealanders conserving by ‘doing’ rather than just by ‘donating’ and I expect that if we quantified it and its outcomes, they too could be large. Fortunately, we now have a Dept. of Conservation that is focussed on supporting community conservation to benefit from that grass-roots doing and giving.”