Animal conservation is a difficult task at best, but saving elusive species is even harder than normal. Some animals hide so well that conservationists do not realize that there is a problem until it is too late to fix it. Even when they do realize that a species is in danger, this difficulty of studying it can prevent them from identifying the threats that it faces or from measuring the success of conservation programs. Fortunately, scientists are getting much better at finding and tracking elusive species than they were in the past, and there are a few techniques that conservationists can use to prevent most problems, even if they do not know the exact nature of the threat.
Hunting and Trapping Bans
Most governments that set bag limits on hunted animals base their quotas on the size of the local population. Their goal is to ensure that enough animals survive to keep the population steady, even after hunters, accidents, and other sources of attrition have taken their toll. Unfortunately, most of those organizations start with relatively unrestricted hunting policies and only put limits on the number of animals that can be killed when they receive strong evidence that a population is shrinking. Finding that evidence is easy for some species that are easy to find and track in the wild, such as deer. Getting that evidence for elusive species is much harder, since they have trouble distinguishing between a small population and a simple failure to find any specimens. As such, hunting quotas often remain much higher than the population can sustain, which can lead to extinction in the long run.
This means that many elusive species can be hunted even when their populations are low. As an example, consider the Montana Fisher, a small carnivore that is related to otters and weasels. They can only be found in a very small part of Montana, and they hide so well that most people who look for them never find one. Unfortunately, they often wander into traps, and it is legal for hunters to trap them deliberately. That hurt the population for many years before an effort began to end the hunt, but popular demand and the difficulties of taking an accurate census ensured that it only resulted in a slight drop in the quota for the species. The decrease is likely to help, but it is vastly inferior to a full ban and may not be sufficient to protect the species on its own.
Many elusive species are threatened by excessive hunting.
Hunting restrictions can maintain a healthy population, but governments usually establish them in response to firm evidence of decreasing populations.
Since an accurate population survey is difficult when dealing with elusive species, passing a new restriction is difficult.
The greatest threat to most species—both those that are easy to find and the more elusive species—is habitat loss. Pollution is one of the biggest threats to their habitats, but logging, mining, and farming are also serious threats. Most animals can coexist with some industry, as long as the industry follows regulations that prevent it from destroying the environment. This is often the case in developed nations, but the developing world often declines to regulate the industry in the hope of encouraging rapid growth. Other nations pass laws but do not enforce them adequately. In either case, animal populations suffer as their habitat shrinks to the point where it cannot sustain the species.
Saving elusive species from habitat loss is difficult both because scientists have trouble tracking the populations and because they cannot determine what the animals need to thrive. If researchers have trouble finding animals to study, they usually cannot discover the pollutants and environmental factors that can harm them. That prevents them from providing guidance to legislators, which in turn prevents those legislators from creating laws that can protect the elusive animals. Any law that offers adequate protection when the threat is unknown would have to be extremely broad and heavily restrict business, which is something that most government agencies are desperate to avoid.
The African golden cat shows how habitat protection efforts can support animal conservation goals. The cats live in developed forests in central Africa, and they cannot survive in other environments. Logging companies threaten their forests, but some heavily forested regions in Africa ban all logging. Others allow moderate logging but require the companies to protect the ecosystem, while some are unregulated. Researchers used cameras to track the cat populations in each area. While they do expect a high degree of error due to the difficulty of finding the cats, they found that there were more sightings in the reserved forests than elsewhere. More importantly, they found that areas with moderate restrictions still held more cats than unrestricted forests, which proves that industry and conservation are not inherently opposed.
Habitat loss is a leading threat to almost all elusive species.
Little is known about most elusive species, so it can be hard to know which regulations will protect their habitats.
Evidence does suggest that a compromise is possible between industry and conservation that will allow animals to coexist with logging and other resource extraction programs.
The greatest thing that scientists can do for these elusive species is to learn more about them and their environmental needs. That would give lawmakers the information that they need to pass laws to protect these animals, and it would also give conservationists clear goals to work toward. That would allow the groups that protect these species to use the same techniques that have been proven to work with species that have successfully recovered from falling populations. It’s a difficult task, but researchers are starting to make progress on it.
The case of the African golden cat proves that scientists can get the knowledge they need as long as they use unconventional methods. Instead of using volunteers or students to walk through an area and look for signs of life, they need to set out hidden cameras to catch the animals as they go about their lives. Since the creatures are not aware of the cameras, they have a minimal impact on their behavior. This method yields the most accurate results that are available to science at this time, and it can easily be combined with historical techniques.
Once the researchers have their data, they can use it to compare the results of different experimental protection programs. Doing so provides concrete information about which programs are more effective than others, and they can use that data to guide strategic conservation decisions.
Saving Hidden Wonders
Modern research techniques are making it easier than ever to detect elusive species.
Comparing data taken from multiple areas allows researchers to compare the results of different programs.
After the comparison, conservationists can use that information to apply the most successful methods everywhere.
People rarely think about species that they cannot see, but those animals are still in danger. Their reclusive nature does make it difficult to protect them, but habitat conservation efforts and hunting restrictions have been shown to help. New technology is also making it easier to learn more about them, which will help to publicize their plight and teach conservationists how to keep them safe. Saving these elusive species is a big job, but animal conservation groups are making progress every day. If you want to help save these animals, a simple donation or a few hours of volunteer work with a local group can make a big difference.