It's hard to argue against endangered species protection. With beautiful and majestic animals like California condors, water buffaloes and mountain gorillas facing oblivion, the cost of protecting habitats or cutting down on poaching seems negligible. On the other other hand, as opponents of the Endangered Species Act have so often argued, when the lives and livelihoods of workers are on the line, the cost -- and value -- of endangered species protection often seems much higher.
When balanced against the economic and social costs of closing a logging site or a fish hatchery, some argue, it's worth asking how much wildlife preservation actually costs -- and how much it's worth.
Recently, a study published in Science attempted to answer the question. Using bird preservation as a model, the study's authors determined that it would cost roughly $80 billion per year, or $11.42 for every person on the planet, to "lower the extinction risk" for every species that is currently endangered or threatened. The majority -- $76 billion -- would go toward establishing and protecting habitats, while the rest would go toward more direct programs to combat extinction.
While this funding wouldn't immediately save all species, it would effectively move each endangered animal up one step on the protection list. All the animals on the "critically endangered" list would shift to the "endangered" list, all the "endangered" animals to the "vulnerable" list, all the "vulnerable" animals to the "near threatened" list, and so on.
For Americans, this cost is negligible: $11.42 represents less than two hours of minimum wage work. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, working together, could pick up the entire $80 billion price tag for one year and still have $32 billion left over. On a global level, however, $11.42 is actually a lot of money: In Mongolia, home of the critically endangered Amur leopard, it represents 14% of a minimum wage worker's monthly salary. In Rwanda, habitat of the critically endangered mountain gorilla, it represents almost five days work for a high-paid worker.
To further complicate matters, given the location of many endangered species, the high costs of maintaining nature preserves and protected habitats would fall on countries, like Rwanda and Mongolia, that are already economically fragile. In some cases, countries could benefit from protecting their species; Rwanda, for example, has developed a robust eco-tourism industry that revolves around its mountain gorillas. For less-beloved animals, like the critically endangered African wild ass, eco-tourism is a harder sell. And given that the monthly salary for a civil servant in Eritrea, where the African wild ass lives, is only $24, it seems unlikely that the country will be willing to sacrifice economic growth for conservation.
As the Science study noted, raising the necessary funds for endangered species preservation would "require conservation funding to increase by at least an order of magnitude." In layman's terms, that's in the neighborhood of 10 times as much as we spend on it now -- a tall order, especially for a worldwide economic system that has spent the last few years teetering on the edge of collapse. Given the increasing endangerment of worldwide economic security, it's worth asking if the majority of the world's population has the energy -- or money -- to address the needs of other species.
Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.