Scientist of the Week: Ellen Butcher

Thu, 11/01/2012 - 9:58am
Lily Barback, Associate Editor

Image: Zoological Society of London Every Thursday, Laboratory Equipment features a Scientist of the Week, chosen from the science industry’s latest headlines. This week’s scientist is Ellen Butcher, from the Zoological Society of London. She worked on a team that published a new list of the species closest to extinction called “Priceless or Worthless.”

Q: How did you break down all the information you gathered and decide what species were the most threatened on Earth?
The 100 species featured in “Priceless or Worthless?” were nominated by the 8,000 scientists who comprise the IUCN Species Specialist Groups. The species featured were nominated on the basis that, in the expert opinion of the members of these specialist groups, they were the most likely species to go extinct in the near future unless the conservation attention that they currently receive is increased. 

Q: What are the future implications of your research and findings?
Priceless or Worthless was focused on raising the profile of the world’s most critically endangered species, while also challenging society to consider how much they value these, and other, species. Do we value them enough to save them, or are they worthless and should be left to go extinct?

Already, the international media attention that the book has garnered has led to interesting and exciting debate. In addition, by raising the profile of these species we have made some governments aware of just what they stand to lose. Following the publication of this report we received news from researchers in the field that government officials have contacted them asking for proposals to rescue top 100 species listed within their country.

We hope that this book will continue to inspire debate around the value of species and provide the impetus for efforts to save the 100 species listed, and other critically endangered species.

Q: What was the most surprising thing you found in your research?
 The primary factors driving species to extinction, such as habitat loss and exploitation, are already well documented and the primary threats driving the top 100 species to extinction reflected these.  What was surprising, or rather disappointing, was that although we have a good idea how to avert extinction for the majority of these 100 species, governments and donors are failing to provide the financial and political support necessary to save them. If these groups step up to the challenge of supporting conservation efforts for these species then we have a real chance of saving them.

Q: What is the take home message of your research and results?
Despite what the title of the project may suggest, I firmly believe that all species are priceless. The global response to this project suggests that the majority of the population agree. However, if we sit back and watch our global biological heritage disappear, then we are implying that we believe the complete opposite. We need to ensure that our actions towards the natural world and the fantastic species that it contains reflects our core values, particularly the ethical standpoint that other species have a right to exist and that we have a duty to avert their unnecessary extinction.

“Priceless of Worthless?” can seem a little disheartening at first. However, we feel that it can also be viewed as a challenge to protect the world’s species. In addition to highlighting the world’s most threatened species, we also profile a number of species that we have managed to rescue from the brink of extinction – we can do the same for the 100 listed in this book. Although their situation may seem dire we should never give up hope as, given enough creativity, ingenuity and effort we have the capacity to save even species that seem beyond the point of rescue.

Q: What new technologies did you use in your lab during your research

A: None. The research for this project was conducted through literature reviews and discussions with relevant species experts.

Q: What is next for you and your research?
We are currently assisting various specialists around the world to raise the plight of these 100 species with their national and local governments, offering our support in developing rescue projects for these species.  A number of the species in this project are focal species for the Zoological Society of London. We are committed to protecting these species and reversing their decline. In addition, we are currently developing a long-term plan for this initiative which will probably include a review of the top 100 list.



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