How Much Is a Species Worth?

Conservationists don’t often consider economics. Here’s why they should.

7 min readSep 11, 2018


Photo: jayk7/Moment/Getty Images

As darkness falls over the plains of Zimbabwe, an American hunter fires an arrow at a lion named Cecil. He goes on to receive death threats and is forced into hiding. Elsewhere in the savannah, Maasai tribesmen poison a group of lions, killing two. They are later arrested, facing life imprisonment. Over in the tropics, a group of men begin illegally cutting down acres of the Amazon. Their crime goes unpunished.

It’s natural for us to react emotionally to these events. But would you have felt differently if you knew the hunt contributed $50,000 to wildlife conservation? What about if you know poisoned lions had been preying on Maasai farmers’ cattle? Or that the deforesters are local subsistence farmers who rely on the rainforest’s resources for survival?

Conservation is a notoriously difficult issue to navigate. It’s difficult to quantify and measure. It’s laced with questions of morality and ethics, so emotions run high. And because it’s so fundamental to our planet, everyone from farmers to city-dwellers feels they should have a say.

Image by author.

Estimates put the global cost of preserving endangered species and their habitats at $76 billion per year. The US government spends $7 billion per year on the cause, but countries with more biodiversity tend to have less to spend — Brazil is home to 13% of all life on Earth, but its conservation budget is just $180M.

There’s a lot of work to be done, and not enough money to do it. That’s not to say that we should be doing all we can, because it’s unclear whether conservation trumps the countless other issues competing for our resources. What’s important is to make sure the money that we do spend has an impact.

How do we decide which animals to protect?

In 1991, out of the 550+ endangered species in the United States, which do you think received the most conservation funding from the U.S. government?

The bald eagle. Of course.