Problems With Insect Conservation

Traditionally, most insects have been largely disregarded in conservation, on the premise that they may be secure under measures taken to conserve more charismatic taxa such as warm-blooded vertebrates. The latter are supposed widely to act as "umbrellas" for most or all coexisting species, but this idea is now recognized as oversimplistic, because many invertebrates are ecologically specialized and need detailed management to sustain them in the face of environmental change. However, without past emphasis on vertebrates, many habitats and sites recognized as of considerable importance for insects would surely have been lost. One attraction of basing conservation on groups such as birds or mammals is simply that they are relatively well known: their diversity is limited and tangible, most of the species are named, and many are recognizable without having to capture and kill the animals for detailed examination; their biology and habitat needs are reasonably well understood, and their distributional ranges and patterns defined; even the numbers and population sizes of many species can be evaluated reliably. Parallels with large showy butterflies and dragonflies have led to these being referred to as "birdwatchers' bugs," but they contrast dramatically with most other insect groups. Uncertainties over levels of species richness, that most species are still unnamed or even uncollected, and fragmentary or nonexistent ecological and distributional knowledge provide severe impediments to defining the patterns of diversity and distributions that may constitute the template for conservation evaluation. For many insect habitats in most parts of the world, we have little idea of insect species richness and identity. Many insect species are known solely from long-dead museum specimens and may never be seen alive. Of the world's 12 "megadiverse countries" (collectively estimated to harbor more than 70% of earth's animal and higher plant species), only for Australia can reasonably informed approximations of the extent, distribution, and ecological features of the insect fauna be deduced sufficiently to make conservation recommendations above the universal need to safeguard natural habitats. For the far more species-rich tropical countries, the paucity of resident entomologists and differing priorities render such data very approximate and their accumulation a low priority. Costa Rica, recently subject to an internationally sponsored biodiversity inventory through its national Biodiversity Institute, is an important exception. It is salutary to reflect that a decline in individual insect species in well-known (predominantly temperate-region) faunas can arouse substantial conservation interest and action, whereas tropical habitats supporting far more insect species than the total fauna of any European country disappear rapidly.

There is little reason to doubt that numerous insect species have become extinct as a direct result of human activities during the past few decades, although most have not been documented, and that the process continues. Insects are a major component of what has sometimes been referred to as "the sixth great extinction," considered likely to result in the loss of a substantial proportion of the world's species within a few decades. Efforts in insect conservation are an important avenue to increasing the understanding of human impact on natural ecosystems and of the subtle steps needed to safeguard them in the face of accelerating losses. However, the complexity of the issues involved demands a clear perspective and allocation of priorities, so that limited funding and expertise can be deployed for the greatest benefit.

Developing such perspective has involved: (a) increasing fundamental documentation of patterns of insect species richness on a variety of geographical scales, perhaps streamlining the process by concentrating on selected focal taxa because of the immense difficulty of enumerating all insect groups; (b) selecting the most deserving taxa for conservation targets, based on urgency of need to prevent extinction; (c) defining and alleviating threats to taxa and to their host environments; (d) public and administrative education to communicate the importance of insects in the natural world, and hence the need for their conservation; and (e) evaluating the contributions of insects in broader conservation activities. These parameters recognize that, despite ethical problems with any such selection, the diversity of insect species is such as to necessitate some form of "triage" in selecting the most deserving species for management and recovery action. One consequence has been a tendency to increase the scale of conservation concern; whereas single species are the most popular conservation targets, because they are defined tangible entities to which people can relate easily, their value as "flagships" or "umbrellas" for their habitats and other community members is of increasing importance in seeking wider benefits. Most fundamentally, support will never be sufficient to treat all deserving insect species individually as conservation targets needing expensive long-term recovery actions, and so any constructive shortcuts must be explored.

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