Why help parasites?

When you hear the words “endangered animal” most people think of the cute pandas in those TV ads or strong, terrifying tigers that they see on National Geographic. The words usually spark an urge to research more on how to help or donate and support these cute and well known endangered animals. 

When you hear the words parasite what do you think? Do you think of slimy leeches? Do you think of ticks that cling onto your furry friends? Popular media has “carefully pruned” our minds into this mindset. Parasites vary from animals and plants to fungi and even viruses.

Well, you may argue that parasites are bad and leech off of other organisms. If you think about it, in terms of nature and survival, they have a pretty good strategy. Jimmy Bernot, an evolutionary biologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, states that parasites have “an exceptionally successful form of life.” Not all parasites even do harm to their host. The batches that do are called “parasitoids” and those ones are usually deadly to their host. Other than those, most parasites are just trying to survive off the host’s resources and some even protect the host. 

 Even just the word parasite holds a negative connotation, but really most parasites are crucial to holding their ecosystems together. Most endangered parasites are at risk because the species that they use as hosts are also endangered, putting it in more danger. It might be hard to imagine but Mackenzie Kwak, a parasitologist at the National University of Singapore says when looking at food webs in ecosystems “we find in some cases that parasites are making up more than half of the links between species.” With this revelation we can see how important it is that endangered parasites are acknowledged. 

Others may argue that the umbrella strategy applies to this problem. What is the umbrella strategy? Many conservation organizations argue that by advocating for species that appeal to the common person, the money that is earned can also go to the conservation of lesser known species. It seems like a good idea in theory, but most of the time it does not help. The conservation needs of each species vary greatly. “The habitat requirements for larger, more charismatic species do not always reflect the specific needs of highly specialized micro-endemics inhabiting specific habitats within a landscape” says Olivia Couchman, the Zoological Society of London’s manager for its EDGE of Existence program. In summary, the umbrella strategy doesn’t work as it ignores the needs of each species in an ecosystem with more than one species that is being supported.

What’s a strategy that does work? Marketing. It might seem like an extremely simple answer to a complex and always evolving problem, but proper marketing of unappealing species might be the key to saving them. A study held by Diogo Veríssimo and Bob Smith tested the marketing strategies of two well known animal conservation organizations, World Wildlife Fund-US (WWF) and the Zoological Society of London with their EDGE of Existence program. WWF-US gains support by letting donors “adopt” an animal by sending them a small plush of the species, a photo, and a certificate. The EDGE program raises money from their informative website with links where donors can read and learn more about the species and their importance to their ecosystems. Their study showed that the WWF-US’s marketing showed no effect and the donors favored famous species while the EDGE program got people interested in saving lesser known species. Don’t think it will work? Another example of something taking off almost miraculously and becoming popular is “The Mojave Phone Booth” where one man creates a website for a lone, unknown phone booth in the middle of the Mojave desert and it became so popular that the phone booth was taken down. Something similar could happen with an animal species.

In the end, what am I trying to say? Marketing is the key to saving dying and endangered species that are appealing, like parasites.

Wanna learn more? Here are more links to learn more about overlooked endangered species and how marketing can save them.

Why are some endangered species ignored?

Parasites may gross us out, but they hold ecosystems together

When It Comes to Conservation, Are Ugly Animals a Lost Cause?

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