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Barometer of life: More action, not more data

Knight, A.T., Bode, M., Fuller, R.A., Grantham, H.S., Possingham, H.P., Watson, J.E.M. & Wilson, K.A. 2010. Barometer of life: More action, not more data. Science, 329, 141. [Refereed correspondence]

In their Policy Forum, S. N. Stuart et al. called for “The Barometer of Life” (9 April, p. 177) to expand the scope of the IUCN Red List. The barometer would provide more detailed information on the threats, distribution, and extinction risks of 160,000 species considered more representative of the millions of species likely to exist than the 48,000 assessed to date.

We agree that identifying conservation actions to save species depends on knowledge of threats, distribution, and extinction risk, but the conservation benefit of continuing to accumulate such information must be traded off against the benefits of spending the proposed funds on alternative conservation activities, and the return on investment evaluated. Conservation initiatives fail with disturbing regularity, usually due to a suite of interacting social, economic, and political factors rather than an absence of data. Conservation plans are unlikely to be significantly improved by increasing the number of taxa upon which they are based, due to the rapidly diminishing returns of biological surveys and the extreme heterogeneity in economic and social influences on decision-making.

Although the IUCN Red List has been instrumental in raising global public awareness by documenting the status of threatened species, we question whether its expansion represents a sound return on investment. The US$60 million investment proposed by Stuart et al. to expand the Red List could be better spent improving local-scale decision-making and implementing action. For example, the Wildlife Conservation Society spends around US$25 million annually on 1100 staff in 12 countries for its Africa field program, and the New Zealand government plans to spend NZ$30 million a year for the next 50 years on saving 559 threatened species. We have sufficient data to confirm the current unprecedented Anthropocene extinction event. We need to market this fact better and implement action, not add weight to it with more data.

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