International Women’s Day

Ednah Nyambu, Kenya

Ednah works with our partner Nature Kenya’s Saving the Taita Apalis Program, protecting a Critically Endangered endemic bird species in the future Taita Apalis Forest Reserve.

What is a typical day like for you in the forest?

My day begins with an early morning hike to one of the largest refuges for the Critically Endangered Taita Apalis. Inside the forest, I patrol to assess forest disturbance in the form of grazing, fuelwood fetching and logging. I also carry out bird monitoring through identifying and recording birds species both heard and seen to assess abundance in the forest.

What surprises you about your job?

I was surprised about how willing and eager the local community is in wanting to learn more about the endemic species of the Taita Hills forest. Most importantly, they want to see the small bird, the Taita Apalis. I have seen the values of science through fieldwork and its contribution towards decision making and knowledge generation, especially here in the Taita Hills.

What do you like most about working in conservation?

Informing the community of the uniqueness and endemism of the Taita Hills forests and the need to protect and conserve the forests is one of the activities I enjoy doing most in this job. Taita Hills is my home, and as a young, upcoming conservation leader, I feel honored to contribute whatever I can to sustainable conservation of forests for myself and future generations.


Ndelle Lizett Messame, Cameroon

As a project assistant with our partner Cameroon Wildlife Conservation Society, Lizett plans and implements field activities and species inventories. Here she is pictured (center) visiting with a baby chimpanzee in rehabilitation at the Douala-Edea National Park.

What would you like to share about your work?

As a woman conservationist, I feel very special because so many women shy away from this kind of job and consider it to be a dirty job. But they don’t know what it feels like conserving nature and ensuring sustainability of our natural resources. In addition, ever since I started working as a conservationist, I noticed that the interest I have in protecting nature is adding to my capacity as a mother to protect every person around me.

What is a typical day like in the forest?

A typical day in the forest is tedious, especially when I have to make my way through a dense forest of twisted trees. But in the end, you find yourself happy for having contributed to the promotion of nature conservation.

What is the hardest part of your job?

The hardest part of my job is to get the support of a village that has never been sensitized about conservation activities.


Kamala Rai, Nepal

Kamala Rai is a social mobilizer assisting with our partner KTK-BELT’s empowerment and conflict transformation programs. She is seated (center), documenting local traditions with community members in the future Lumbasumba Conservation Area.

Why did you choose this job?

As I got to know about the Lumbasumba Conservation Project, I thought this was my best opportunity to make locals aware of threats and conservation issues, educate them and serve my village by protecting ecosystems, habitats and species through community-based landscape conservation.

What do you like most about working in conservation?

Conservation provides long-term benefits for the locals by protecting unique habitats, forests, plants, butterflies, animals and wetlands. I think conservation supports sustainable development goals rather than promoting short-term benefits.

What is the hardest part of your job?

I think the work we are doing teaches us how to work further. I feel attached to every part of the project and feel proud for serving my village and the conservation of surrounding nature. Thus, I don’t feel anything is hard about this job and assigned responsibilities.


Petga Feukeu Emilie Laure, Cameroon

As a field assistant for our partner Cameroon Wildlife Conservation Society, Petga supports eco-health education and outreach activities associated with Douala-Edea National Park.

What do you like most about working in conservation?

What I like most about this work is participating in the protection of the environment, nature, animal species, plants and rare resources. I appreciate the opportunity to sensitize and integrate the community into conservation projects, thus making it possible to shift their value to the biodiversity of a region.

What is a typical day like for you in the forest?

A typical day in the forest is full of emotions and excitement to discover new surprises, but it is also a moment of escape from the daily grind of the city and a rest for the spirit.

What has surprised you about your work?

In the course of my work, I was surprised by the hospitality of the communities bordering the national park which facilitates the completion of the teams on the ground in an area where there are no accommodation facilities.


Rainforest Trust projects thrive thanks to the important conservation work of people on the ground. The Voices from the Rainforest series brings you news from our projects in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific — from the perspectives of those working in and for the rainforests.

World’s Tallest Tropical Tree Found in Malaysian Borneo

In the 2018 Tree Yearbook, many of the superlatives went to familiar candidates. A redwood won “Most Imposing,” again. “Most Unpleasant Neighbor” went to a strangler fig. “Best Leaves” went to a banana plant (not technically a tree, but judges allowed it.)

But a new contender in the arboreal retrospective also emerged: “Tallest Tropical Tree.”

Last year, researchers in Malaysian Borneo’s Danum Valley conducted LIDAR (or Light Detecting and Ranging) surveys. Essentially, LIDAR bounces lasers around to get a detailed picture of a landscape’s structure.

The Danum Valley

Among the thick rainforest, they found a unique individual tree. A Yellow Meranti, Shorea faguetiana, looked like it measured over 300 feet tall. But they needed to do more tests. Unding Jami, from Southeast Asia Rainforest Research Partnership (SEARRP), one of Rainforest Trust’s partners in Malaysia, ended up climbing the tree with a measuring tape.

Jami said “the view from the top was incredible. I don’t know what to say other than it was very, very, very amazing.”

After finalization, the researchers confirmed that the tree measured 328 feet and surpassed another nearby tree as the tallest in the tropics. To put that in perspective — 328 feet is a 33 story building. It’s over six times the height of your standard Red Maple. It’s taller than the Statue of Liberty.

The researchers nicknamed the tree “Menara,” which means “tower” in Malay. It weighs over 89 tons and may also be the world’s tallest flowering plant. The world’s tallest tree, tropics notwithstanding, is a redwood coming just 50 feet taller at 379 feet.

Rainforest Trust helped protect part of the Danum Valley with SEARRP, the Sabah Foundation and Permian Global with the Sabah Forestry Department and State Government. The forest is home to Critically Endangered wildlife such as Bornean Orangutans and Sunda Pangolins.

“Rainforest Trust is excited to see more research discovering new aspects of the Danum Valley ecosystem,” said Rainforest Trust CEO Paul Salaman. “This discovery highlights the area’s unique value to world biodiversity.”

Climate Change Dries Up Sacred Lake in Colombia

A sacred lake in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains of northern Colombia is gone. The lake, a symbol of fertility to the Kogi indigenous population, dried up in Rainforest Trust’s El Dorado Nature Reserve in early 2019. The Sierra Nevada, along with being the “Most Irreplaceable Site for Biodiversity on Earth” according to the journal Science, is also the seat of creation for the Kogi people. The local population believes that if the rain-fed lake, Nakulindue — meaning Fountain of Life or Birth of Life — disappears, humanity will lose its fertility and vanish.

Lake Nakulindue had dried into a marshland by June 2015. Photo by Victor Jimenez.

The Kogi are a Pre-Columbian society of about 20,000 people who have lived for millennia in Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. They believe they are caretakers of the towering 19,000-foot mountain range, which is, to them, the birthplace of life, nature and humanity.

The Kogi have attempted to warn the western world about the dangers of unfettered development carving out our natural resources. They have felt the impact of logging, mining and road construction on their mountain range. They have seen its vegetation shift and its snow-capped ridges dry out over the decades due to climate change. But this year is the first time that Lake Nakolindue and other sacred waterways have dried up, potentially to the point of no return.

“Losing this lake is not only a loss to the local ecology of El Dorado and the Kogi people, but also a blow to global biodiversity,” said Rainforest Trust CEO Paul Salaman. “The symbolism behind this barren lake in the wake of climate change — that it means the end of humanity — cannot be understated. We can only hope that continuing to protect rainforest across the tropics will mitigate climate change and prevent other sacred sites from being lost.”

The sacred lake now completely dry in April 2019. Photo by Paul Salaman.

Rainforest Trust and our Colombian partner Fundación ProAves established the El Dorado Nature Reserve to prevent further development in the area while safeguarding the Kogi’s ancestral lands. Many of Santa Marta’s unique forests have been and continue to be cleared for cattle pastures, holiday homes and coffee plantations. So protecting El Dorado is important, especially for the species there found nowhere else. The Critically Endangered Santa Marta Toro, thought extinct for 113 years, was rediscovered in 2011 and lives only in this reserve. The mountain range boasts the highest rates of bird endemism on Earth, home to over 600 bird species, including over 20 endemics, like the Critically Endangered Santa Marta Parakeet. The hope is that these species thrive as the pasturelands in the reserve are restored by Fundación ProAves. In time, perhaps these efforts to heal the landscape will also help recover the Kogi people’s sacred lake.

Header: A Kogi tribeswoman and child. Photo by Dwayne Reilander.

Voices from the Rainforest: Bagus Irawan, Conservation Fellow

Rainforest Trust projects thrive thanks to the important conservation work of people on the ground. Our Voices from the Rainforest series brings you news from our projects in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific — from the perspectives of those working in and for the rainforests.


Bagus Irawan, Raising Awareness for Conservation

Bagus Irawan is a Conservation Fellow in Sumatra, Indonesia, championing the Leuser Ecosystem, a verdant expanse of lowland and clouded mountain rainforests under extreme pressure from mining and palm oil, pulp and paper plantations.

Bagus focuses on community relations and conservation education. He is one of the few adults in the region that does not work for the government or an extractive company. Where many before him failed to make inroads with Kluet communities, Bagus is starting to succeed because of his patience and dedication to the forests he calls home.

Bagus (second from right) meets with local community members in the Kluet watershed. Photo by Bagus Irawan.

 

Why did you become a conservationist?

I was born and grew up in the South Aceh district, which is part of the Leuser Ecosystem. Since I was little I have been accustomed to interacting with forests and wild animals, so I had the dream of becoming a mountaineer at that time. I have been in conservation since I finished high school at a conservation institution. There, I came to know the importance of conservation to maintain the stability of nature and wildlife for human survival. I see too many people who are destroying forests and hunting animals, so I take a small part in saving forests and animals, especially in the Leuser Ecosystem.

 

Tell us about a conservation success at your project site.

Many conservation agencies and forestry authorities couldn’t access the Kluet region because of community conditions. We also had the same challenge — how many times have we been expelled and threatened? But we continued to strive and manage the strategy. Now, we have a very good relationship with the entire community there and we can carry out activities according to what was planned. We have built traditional house facilities and monitoring posts. We have also been considered as family by much of the local community. Even during the construction of our monitoring post, the local community offered their land free to us.

Working to provide an understanding of conservation to local communities, especially with people who have different levels of education, is very difficult. For economic reasons, communities often convert forests into monoculture plantations. The challenge is to change the people’s mindset to become a conservationist society.

The first time I interacted with the community in Kluet I got a strong rejection. But the conditions are now inversely proportional. I feel that I have become part of the community there, like being at home.

 

What inspires you most about being a Conservation Fellow?

I want to share my experiences with friends around the world about the conservation activities we have done in Kluet. I also want to learn about other conservation experiences around the world. With my limited experience and knowledge here, by working with other fellows, I can participate in campaigning for Leuser conservation throughout the world.

 

Why is conservation important to you?

The environment requires balance to carry out its functions. If nature is disturbed it will have a very bad impact on life on Earth. The Kluet region is a key wildlife habitat in the Leuser ecosystem and is a source of livelihood for 20,000 people. The majority of them are farmers who need water for their fields and gardens. If this region is destroyed and not conserved, this potential consequences would be inconceivable. I would be very sorry to see the source of life of my families there disappear. Not to mention, key animals such as Sumatran Rhinos, Sumatran Tigers, Sumatran Orangutans and Sumatran Elephants — all Critically Endangered subspecies — will lose their habitat.

More Critically Endangered Doves Spotted in Brazil

Over the past few years, Rainforest Trust and our local partner in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, SAVE Brasil, have worked to protect habitat for the Critically Endangered Blue-eyed Ground-dove.

The saga began in 2015. For the first time in 75 years, someone spotted the Blue-eyed Ground-dove, until then believed to be extinct. Soon after, more reports confirmed that first sighting. And lo-and-behold: an extinct species was now … not. A series of rapid conservation moves by local actors and international groups, including Rainforest Trust, followed. The plan: protect the rediscovered species’ habitat, ensuring its future survival.

The Blue-eyed Ground-dove. Photo by Rafael Bessa.

In 2017, Rainforest Trust and SAVE Brasil purchased a plot of land home to most of the Blue-eyed Ground-dove population to create the Blue-eyed Ground-dove Reserve. The following summer, the Minas Gerais government created Botumirim State Park next door. Together, the two protected areas secure almost 90,000 acres for the bird and other species of Brazil’s threatened cerrado ecosystem.

Brazil’s threatened cerrado ecosystem. Photo by Eduardo Gomes.

But the Blue-eyed Ground-dove’s upward conservation trajectory hasn’t slowed. A couple of months ago, researchers studying the bird’s habitat heard rumors of a new group of ground-doves. Someone had seen doves outside their known habitat. Last month, after initial scouting, they confirmed these rumors — and four more individual birds.

A sign marking the Blue-eyed Ground-dove Reserve. Photo courtesy of SAVE Brasil.

The four new individuals increase the known Blue-eyed Ground-dove population by 26%. But the new birds may also increase the species’ genetic diversity, bolstering population health.

“Those who work in nature conservation are usually very resilient, but it is difficult to search for a rare species like the Blue-eyed Ground-dove in a habitat that looks perfect for it and not find it there,” said Marcelo Lisita, a project assistant for SAVE Brasil. “After one year of looking around different sites without finding any new individuals, it was with a profusion of excitement that we spotted these few in a new area.”

The rumors started with a local community member. SAVE Brasil takes this as a sign that their outreach efforts have been successful. Raising awareness about the ground-dove and the cerrado’s ecological importance are a top priority for outreach.

Researchers hope this will be the first of more new ground-dove discoveries in the area and that protecting the birds’ unique habitat will lead to a growing population.

Australian Wildlife Corridor Restored to Mitigate Effects of Climate Change

The Misty Mountain Nature Refuge on Australia’s northeastern coast lived up to its name during the protected area’s first-ever community planting day. In late March, over 70 volunteers met on a hazy tropical ridge to begin ecologically restoring a stretch of rainforest from the reserve to the coast. The conservation project’s goal is creating a wide, safe corridor for range-restricted mammals seeking cooler habitat in the wake of climate change.

Recognizing the region as a national priority, Rainforest Trust and Australian partner South Endeavor Trust established the 173.5-acre Misty Mountain Nature Refuge in 2017. The refuge connects not only the mountains to the sea, but also two large expanses of World Heritage rainforest. The vital corridor created by this refuge is essential for animals to move freely. Ultimately, Queensland’s wildlife will have a 3 million-acre mosaic of diverse rainforest habitats to traverse.

Local resident enjoying the March community planting day. Photo by Tim Hughes.

Volunteers have already planted 5,000 native species to increase biodiversity as they widen the corridor. Tim Hughes, South Endeavour Trust’s Executive Director, does not have to explain the restoration work’s importance to the volunteers. They are “all very aware of how critical this corridor project is,” he said. “This is a truly committed community trying to repair the environment within which they live so that its unique wildlife can have the best possible chance to survive the challenges of both habitat fragmentation and climate change.”

The volunteers’ main goal is widening the corridor for mammals such as the Lumholtz’s Tree Kangaroo and the Lemuroid Ringtail Possum. The latter species is particularly susceptible to climate change since they can succumb to heat stress. But a secure corridor allows them to seek refuge from increased heat due to climate change. “This improved ridge to reef corridor in the Misty Mountain Nature Refuge is a necessity for these range-restricted mammals as threats from climate change increase,” said Rainforest Trust CEO Paul Salaman.

The project aims to install 17,000 locally-sourced plants over the next two years. Volunteers are using 95 different species, some of which will grow into food sources for the Vulnerable Southern Cassowary. The refuge is also home to a northern subspecies of the Near Threatened Spotted-tailed Quoll, the largest remaining native carnivore in the region. The quoll will benefit from restoration as well, since its prey will thrive from an increase in vegetative diversity and abundance.

Header photo: Volunteers working together to widen and restore the wildlife corridor. Photo by Tim Hughes.

 

Conservation Basics: Saving the World With Enya

Rainforest Trust’s work to protect habitats for threatened species is grounded in cutting-edge conservation science. But in this series, we explore the basics of conservation science and how they inform Rainforest Trust’s scientists.

As I write this, the soothing tones of Enya’s “May It Be,” written for the Lord of the Rings film series, is playing through my headphones on repeat.

(Judge me for my work playlist. I dare you.)

At this point in the films, right after the events of the Fellowship of the Ring, our party of heroes has fractured. Orcs have taken Merry and Pippin. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are off to save them. Gandalf is (for now) dead. Boromir is (for good) dead. Sam and Frodo are schlepping to Mordor.

This post has something to do with conservation, I promise.

On that end-of-the-beginning cliffhanger, the screen fades to black and Enya chimes in:

May it be an evening star
Shines down upon you
May it be when darkness falls
Your heart will be true

It’s an interesting choice in tone. The plot has arrived at a rather dark moment. The promise of camaraderie is gone, the mission has dispersed and each character must decide for themselves how to continue. The potential world-shattering consequences of their journey are in the hands of each individual’s decision. And without any of them continuing to fight evil, all of them are more likely to fail.

But nobody goes home. No one dares let the darkness of the moment cloud their vision of a better future. They each have the choice of the easy route or the valiant — yet difficult and fraught-with-peril — route. And they all choose the latter. That could be why Enya, instead of bemoaning the loss of unity, availed our heroes of the universe’s fortune and courage.

The fight for our planet’s future is at a similar crossroads.

But I’m not convinced we’ve all decided to carry on.

I dubbed this column “Conservation Basics.” And I started it intending to convey the details of conservation science. I wanted those not versed in the annals of the field to be able to advocate for conservation-in-practice. But, as I wrote it, I didn’t explain the basics of conservation. I explained the basis of conservation.

Over three articles, I defined habitat with explorer chickens, tortilla chips and coffee snobs. And then, over three articles, I defined species with spaghetti, pastrami sandwiches and freak bears. And that’s basically ecology: habitat and species and their interaction. And pastrami sandwiches.

Conservation can essentially just come down to pastrami sandwiches.

Ecology has a lot of moving parts. But it all comes down to what lives where. Species live in habitats and habitats are home to species. In the words of the Talmudic-era Rabbi Hillel: “The rest is commentary.”

The interdependent and complicated workings of food webs, speciation, community dynamics and every other detail of ecology are the logistical framework of conservation. We need to organize our plans to protect species around the scientific details.

But I haven’t dived into what that means. How do you protect a bison population that roams beyond the boundaries of a national park? How do you protect a species of frog isolated to a disappearing corner of the rainforest? How do you keep poachers from taking rosewood out of a forest and shipping it around the world?

Those questions are the basics of conservation. But we conservationists are often so excited about explaining our plans, we can forget that we’re not always on the same page. We ramble on about our ideas without a common acceptance in the general public of why that work is so important.

We’ve decided to carry on in the fight for our planet, but we don’t always do a good job of convincing others to do so.

So I wrote this column.

And now you know about specific habitat requirements for species, so you can understand why coastal development can be detrimental for ecosystems. Now you know about what differentiates one species from another, so you can understand why protecting some random, rare hummingbird is vital to the legacy of evolution and ecosystem function. Now you know about the ramifications of (what you heretofore believed were) insignificant species going extinct, so you can pipe up next time someone asks “What do we need to save that stupid butterfly for?”

“Who you callin’ stupid?”

But where does this leave us? How do you all truly become advocates for conservation-in-practice if all I’ve done is talk about why it’s important in theory? I could continue this column with the actual fundamentals of conservation on the ground. But it wouldn’t be the same.

This column’s soul has come, I realize in retrospect, from the relationship that has always fascinated me the most: the one between habitat and species. And I could write more on that relationship. A lot more. But I have new ideas for more stories that go beyond that framework. So with this article, I’m closing out the Conservation Basics column.

“Wait!” you might say. “There’s still so much I don’t know. You just asked us: how are we supposed to be conservation advocates when people have so many questions that we won’t know the answers to?”

In the first article of this series, I introduced you to an elephant in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I wrote:

I don’t know where, exactly, the elephant is at this precise moment or if any other elephants are nearby. I don’t know if the elephant is sick, well-fed, hungry, stressed or relaxed. I know nothing about this specific elephant. But I know an elephant is somewhere in the forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Those African Forest Elephants, still there in the DRC. Photo by Caroline Granycome/Flickr

Point is: there’s a lot we’re uncertain about when it comes to conservation. But later in that article I wrote:

Science is about uncertainty, but uncertainty does not consume science, nor does it immobilize it… We need not know every detail to save our planet. We only need to keep learning.

It’s ok that you don’t know everything. I don’t know everything. David Attenborough doesn’t know everything. People ask me questions I don’t know the answer to all the time. I’m sure if you asked David Attenborough about the digestive system of deep-sea vertebrate fishes he wouldn’t know the answer.

Actually, I wouldn’t put it past him.

But I will keep learning. David Attenborough has spent 90+ years continuing to learn. And, I hope, so will you. I’ll keep writing about conservation science, theory and practice on this blog, too. So keep tunin’ in folks!

I hope this column, if it did anything, relayed the splendor and wonder of habitats and species and their inexorable, dynamic relationship. I hope this column let you fall in love with the questions. Because we’re at a crossroads. Our planet is facing potential world-shattering consequences. And I need you to carry on.

It’s daunting. And it’s unpleasant to think about what happens if we fail. The task at hand might ask us to make unlikely friends and go places we’re not used to going.

But if Legolas and Gimli can forge on together, so can we. If Sam can jump from a river into a canoe so as not to abandon Frodo, we can ford that river of doubt.

The best conservation-surrogates in this whole extended metaphor might be Merry and Pippin who teamed up with trees to defeat deforestation. And evil.

I bet Middle Earth has some really cool wildlife. And some thriving ecosystems.

Our planet faces frightening future timelines. But the future, unlike the inscription on the One Ring, isn’t engraved in unbreakable stone.

We have the power to change it. You have the power to change it.

So as Enya said:

Darkness has fallen
A promise lives within you now

Colombia’s El Paujil Reserve Expanded

Header photo courtesy of Fundación ProAves.

Central Colombia’s Magdalena Valley is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. Centered around the 700-mile Magdalena River, this lowland rainforest is a biological melting pot with flora and fauna from both the Amazon and the Chocó.

But the valley also has astounding levels of endemism, a result of its relative isolation. The Magdelena rainforest provides vital habitat for many threatened species that live nowhere else, like the Critically Endangered Blue-billed Curassow and the Magdalena Spider Monkey. Researchers consider the latter to be one of Earth’s rarest primates. The area is also home to populations of the Jaguar, Spectacled Bear and Magdalena Lowland Tapir (a Critically Endangered subspecies).

Unfortunately, almost the entire Magdalena rainforest is already gone. Only 85 miles north of Bogotá, the region is under intense pressure for logging, cattle ranching and illicit coca plantations. Deforestation has destroyed over 16.1 million acres (98 percent) of the region’s lowland rainforests.

The Critically Endangered Blue-billed Currasow. Photo courtesy of Fundación ProAves.

But, as of this month, 1,178 more acres of the remaining forest are now safe from threats. After years of negotiations, Rainforest Trust and partner Fundación ProAves made a strategic purchase that blocks access to and expands the only strict-protected area in Colombia’s Magdalena Valley, El Paujil Reserve.

“The loss of all but a fraction of this incredible ecosystem is a devastating blow to so many irreplaceable species,”

said Rainforest Trust CEO Paul Salaman. “And though it has taken us more than 10 years to protect this last stand of lowland Magdalena rainforest next to El Paujil, we rest assured that this purchase blocks development access and provides a buffer to this critically-placed reserve.”

The main focus of the El Paujil Reserve is species recovery and ecological restoration, in collaboration with nearby communities. The protected area offers environmental education activities for children and adults, including a long-running annual festival celebrating the Critically Endangered Blue-billed Curassow.

This project was made possible by the SAVES Challenge and donors to the Conservation Action Fund, with a special note of thanks to Terry and Soni Baltimore, the Doolin Foundation for Biodiversity, the Felburn Foundation, Larry Thompson and the Quick Response Biodiversity Fund.

Conservation Basics: Saving Frogs at the Deli

Header photo by Robin Moore.

Rainforest Trust’s work to protect habitats for threatened species is grounded in cutting-edge conservation science. But in this series, we explore the basics of conservation science and how they inform Rainforest Trust’s scientists.

Sometimes I find myself telling people I encounter only every once in a while — like cab drivers, friend’s friends, the guy at the deli counter — what I do for a living.

“I work on protecting threatened wildlife in the tropics, like in rainforests,” I say.

“So what kind of animals are we talkin’ ‘bout here?” Sal asks as he daubs more spicy brown mustard on my pastrami sandwich.

“Oh, all sorts of stuff,” I say. “You know, elephants, monkeys, frogs…”

“Frogs!” Sal exclaims, mustard flying across the kitchen as his knife swings up with his full-body motion of disbelief. “Watcha tryna save a frog for?”

The deli. Home base of so many great conversations.

I get questions like this all the time. Which prompts the question: What are we tryna save frogs for?

In fact, let’s continue that line of questioning. What are we trying to save spiders for? What are we trying to save sharks for? What are we trying to save chimpanzees for?

For goodness sake, what are we trying to save elephants for?

Sal’s question, despite my facetiousness, isn’t a bad one. In fact, it’s a good one. It dives at a deeper question of conservation’s purpose and mindset.

Public attitudes about conservation, and, in a lot of ways, the actual work of conservation in the past century have focused on the big species. The iconic ones. Jaguars. Whales. Pandas.

Two reasons for that. Number one: Everyone knows a whale. You see a whale, the average guy on the street says “That’s a whale.” You see a Terrestrial Arboreal Alligator Lizard? Average guy on the street says “I don’t know, Iguana?”

The Terrestrial Arboreal Alligator Lizard. Or, I don’t know, an iguana? Photo by Luis Canseco Márquez.

Number two: They’re all mammals. Humans gravitate more towards species that look like us. So conservationists focus on these classic animals — pandas, whales, etc. — to keep people interested. But are these species more important?

We could get into a whole conversation (or, this is only me talking, so let’s say… a personal diatribe) on the philosophy of evolution, environmental ethics and the inherent value of organisms. But let’s talk about this with some measure of empirical evaluation.

Let’s define “ecological value” for now as relative value to ecosystem stability. As in, which species are more important to keep an ecosystem intact? Different researchers have had different theories on which species hold together an ecosystem. Plant-life is the obvious first thought, right? Every ecosystem needs a flow of nutrients, and where do nutrients always start? In plants. Photosynthesis takes sunlight (available in some quantity pretty much everywhere except cave ecosystems) and turns it into sustenance. Every species that doesn’t photosynthesize eats something that does, or eats something that eats something that does or eats something that eats something that eats something that does. You get my point. Without plants — life has nothing to stand on.

But in the later 20th century, a group of scientists made a series of discoveries that pointed to a much different reality. One scientist, a guy named Robert Paine, spent a lot of time knee deep in a patch of the Pacific Northwest coast. He, one by one, removed every individual of a predatory starfish species from one location over time. In another location, he left everything untouched.

Pisaster ochraceus, the deadly predator starfish Robert Paine focused his studies on. Look at its deadly… purple things. Ok, I don’t know that much about starfish anatomy. CC 2.0/Photo by Jerry Kirkhart.

The micro-ecosystem in the location without the predatory starfish ended up collapsing. Which led Dr. Paine — and plenty of other scientists, in what is now a widespread belief because of repeated studies in other ecosystems with other criteria — to theorize that predators, often apex predators, stabilize ecosystems.

Let’s look at a theoretical example to understand why.

If an apex predator, such as a Lion, disappears or drops in population, the dominant prey species, such as an Impala, will see population growth. Fewer Lions = Fewer Dead Impala. Impala eat plants. With more Impala, they’ll be consuming more plants. If the Impala population grows out of control, they would eat all the plants. So now, by removing the Lions, we’ve killed all the plants. And once all the plants are dead, so will be the Impala.

But you could say the same about the Impala, right? If you removed the Impala, wouldn’t you have the same impact? Not quite.

Based on how food chains (or, to be more exact, food webs) work, an ecosystem will usually have more prey species than predator species. In that Lion-Impala ecosystem, you might also have Thompson’s Gazelle, Grant’s Gazelle, Wildebeest, Hartebeest, Topi, Ostrich, Reedbuck, a few species of Duiker, Eland, African Buffalo, Zebra and Giraffe. Those are all prey species. And I didn’t even list smaller mammals or birds, let alone lizard and fish species. Predator species other than Lions might include Cheetahs, Leopards, Painted Dogs, Crocodiles, two or three Jackal species and two Hyena species. Maybe some Bat-eared Fox and Honey Badger to eat the smaller stuff.

Remove one prey species — an ecosystem has more to fall back on. Remove one predator species — the ecosystem has a lot less wiggle room.

The Bat-eared Fox, who could eat the smaller stuff. CC 2.0/Photo by Derek Keats.

We know that apex predators play an outsize role in ecosystem regulation. But sometimes other species carry a lot of weight as well. Elephants, while not eating anyone else, topple so many trees, some researchers believe they keep grasslands from becoming forests. Parrotfish eat and excrete so much coral, they make much of the sand you find on the beach near a reef.

These are what Robert Paine called “keystone species.” Like the keystone in an arch, if you take these species out of the equation, the whole structure is a lot more likely to collapse than if you take out some other random stone. A lot of keystone species are predators. Some are not. A lot of the time, keystone species are also the species conservationists tend to focus public attention on — like tigers, jaguars and elephants. These species garner public attention and help regulate ecosystem stability more than other species. It’s a win-win for conservationists.

Hold on, wait a second. What about those frogs? Weren’t we going into this whole thing to learn about why saving some random frog is important?

Yes, we were. And I’m not done.

Some species make more of an individual difference. But all those other species add up. One by one, as they go extinct, you’ll have the same impact as losing a predator species: ecosystem collapse.

Imagine, from my earlier thought experiment, instead of the Lions, the Impala (and most of the other prey species I listed) went extinct. Now the predators have nothing to eat, and they’ll die, too. Only the plants would remain — and even then, not for long. I’d bet all the Impala and Zebra dung helped fertilize the soil. Or, the herbivores ate a few species enough to prevent them from overtaking the whole ecosystem. I don’t even know what all the ramifications might be.

The mighty Impala.

Neither do conservation scientists. Yes folks, despite all we understand about how ecosystems work, we don’t understand everything. And we never will. But there’s one thing we know for certain: If we let those little species, the ones who couldn’t possibly mean anything, go extinct, we might not witness any immediate crises.

But right now, scientists say we’re experiencing extinction at 1,000 times the normal rate. If all those species play some role in their ecosystems and die off one by one, wouldn’t that mean that eventually…?

Yup. Definitely trouble.

And if our theoretical ecosystem of plants, Impalas and Lions collapses, it’s not as if everything else nearby will be fine. Every ecosystem, from the poles to the rainforest, connects to another ecosystem. Mess one up, you mess up the one next door. Which affects the one next to that, and the one next to that, and so on and so forth.

You live in one of those ecosystems. Your food comes from one or a few of them, too. So does your water. One species, any species anywhere, going extinct puts us one step closer to global ecosystem collapse. I’m not trying to be an alarmist — it’ll take plenty of extinction to collapse life as we know it. But we’re on a path toward plenty of extinction.

That’s one reason saving every single species, no matter how obscure, unheard-off, freaky-looking, isolated or unimportant it might seem to be, is vital to the survival of life on Earth. Yeah, I said it.

Life. On. Earth.

So one reason we’re tryna save frogs ‘round here, is ‘cause they’s worth it, ya know? For everyone. Saving that frog is part of the difference between a world we can live in and one we can’t.

Sal, I’ll take that pastrami to go. We have a lot of work to do.