What Is A Species Worth?
Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, March 2003, © 2004
What is a Green Jay worth?
What would an Ocelot go for on the stock market?
Can you offer a Malachite butterfly on eBay?
Here in the Rio Grande Valley, we often talk about a million dollar bird when a rare species shows up. Birders from all over the country and even the world arrive to see it, spending money on gas, accommodations, food and other miscellany for sustenance during their quests. This might also include medical attention from binocular strain. The world of commerce is delighted. We all are as the enjoyment of nature and its wonders contributes to the economy and the human desire for beauty. People have even been known to move here just for the birding and butterflying. (Yes, we did). Some species have been saved or maintained because of their attractiveness for ecotourism.
However, in the ideal dream world, some might prefer to think of the pure value of experience. The respected naturalist E.O. Wilson said that "evaluating a species solely by practical value is business accounting in the service of barbarism." Is it somehow crass to regard nature in financial terms? It may be enough merely to look. If you see an Altamira Oriole, do you think of dollar bills? Watch a child's eyes observing a Painted Bunting for the first time, Then the overused word "Wow!" goes beyond even the descriptive power of the great poets.
What is a species worth? It is worth much more than its weight in joy.
Consider an additional offshoot of the basic question. There is another worth beyond pure pleasure and commerce which has its own nobility. "Biodiversity engenders productivity," it is said. To rephrase this: the greater the number of species that exist together, the more stable the ecosystem. Some scientists predict that in 30 years one-half of all the plant and animal species could be extinct. Those who disagree may still mantain a membership in the Flat Earth Society, along with global warming skeptics. Experts say that all 17 oceanic fisheries are at or below sustainable levels. No great improvement is possible!
Think in terms of the world's food supply. Ninety percent comes from only 100 species out of a quarter of a million. Twenty species carry most of the production load, and the big three are rice, maize and wheat. Out there in the rainforest, jungle, marsh or savannah there are 30,000 more potential plant sources of food, 10,000 of which are suitable for domestication.
Why do we need biodiversity? Why should we save an endangered species? Some people who still have the mentality of the l9th Century continue to ask this question. We need to see a Bengal Tiger and we need a bowl of rice. There is nourishment in both.
What is a species worth? Well, we know even the annoying and disease-toting mosquito has been discovered to pollinate flowers in the Arctic summer, and recently we have been told that a protein in Vampire Bat saliva can affect stroke-causing blood clots!
And somewhere out there in a lively and verdant land threatened by development, hidden under twisting vines, there may grow a fungus that cures a dread disease...or alters the environmental short-sightedness of politicians.