Animal conservation is one of those things everyone seems to agree on. Why yes, of course we should keep animals around. It would be disastrous if a bunch of them were lost forever, right?

The details of animal conservation are hotly debated. Do we breed animals in captivity, or let nature take its course? Is private ownership of exotic animals good or bad? Should animal keepers take an involved role in the lives of the animals they care for, or do they stay out of the way as much as possible? No matter how we question ourselves about the mechanics of the matter, conserving animal species is a no-brainer. If we don’t protect the tigers and pandas from harm, they’ll die out.

The reasons we’ve been given throughout our lives for animal conservation have been solid. If we conserve endangered species, we will (obviously) prevent those species from going extinct. Once a species goes extinct, the impact it had on its environment will be gone, and the shape of the ecosystem may shift dramatically, sometimes negatively. Any scientific knowledge we may gain from animal behavior and biology is forfeit. Additionally, the growth of humanity is often to blame for the dwindling populations of lots of species around the globe. If we do not take responsibility, who will? The WWF tells us this exact thing on their website.

We should do everything we can to save the giant panda because we are the ones that have driven it to the edge of extinction. And because we can. But pandas also play a crucial role in China’s bamboo forests by spreading seeds and helping the vegetation to grow. So by saving pandas, we will also be saving so much more.

It’s a strong argument. But it may have less merit than we are led to believe. If we think in the long-term (as in centuries or millennia ahead), what will be the end result of our conservation efforts, if human populations continue to grow?

We can’t save everything. We cannot keep track of every population of every species on Earth. Statistically, we’re rescuing only the animals that we think are important, claiming that the fragility of ecosystems is compelling enough to warrant intervention. However, that fragility may be a misconception.

Nature has lots of ways it can rebuild itself,or fill a void left by an extinct species. Recent studies have shown that plants can allocate resources to deter herbivores, use energy stores when needed, and time the dispersal of seeds. Epigenetics is an emerging field of science that studies how the environment affects how cells read genes, suggesting that how species evolve over time is more flexible than previously thought. In his book Super Species, journalist Garry Hamilton puts a fresh face on the notion of invasive animals, claiming that the opportunities they take advantage of should be “seen not as a cause of habitat degradation but as a symptom of the way humans treat the environment.” These animals thrive because of the opportunities in front of them, and change the landscape as a result.

That’s not all. Forestland in the Americas have been in a slow decline for thousands of years, shifting into grasslands. This is seen as a result of recent human involvement, but there’s another reason, too: the loss of massive mammals like the Giant Ground Sloth and the Woolly Mammoth. Without them, the trees that relied on their massive droppings have steadily declined– but those trees still exist 13,000 years after their seed-carriers vanished. As essential as those animals may have been to their environment, the environment seems to have found a way to get along without them.

All of this research and more adds up to a more complex view of ecosystems as sturdy, yet flexible. The removal or addition of different species from a particular ecosystem may not have as profound an effect after all. Plants and animals adapt to their environment faster than we anticipate, changing the balance of energy at a rapid pace. So where does that leave the conservation of animals?

Let’s call a spade a spade. We like them. We want to keep them around. Go back and re-read that quote from the WWF’s website. The environmental impact of losing the Panda is secondary compared to the real reason: we save these poor animals because we can. We want to do it. Maybe we feel guilty about their decline. Maybe we think we can learn something. Maybe we just think they’re cute. Every reason we have to conserve them is related to our own needs. And that’s fine. We should not feel guilty about that. But let’s own up to it.

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