Letter 5

Last week I thought about the “necessary evil” spawned by economic pressures on conservation efforts. To run a program most effectively and to maximize the plant and animal species protected, it is sometimes necessary to spend the time and resources pursuing donors and building an organization’s economic and social presence. Placing efforts exclusively on direct acts of conservation, ironically, isn’t always the best path. That being said, I’ve also realized that the reality of economics isn’t an inherently “evil” attribute, but it is something that must be addressed and even wielded for the environmental cause. This week at La Mesenia, I’ve spent more time questioning the “necessary evils” of conservation to see if, in fact, they are evil or just plain necessary.

            To take the idea of a business model in conservation a step further, I thought about the commodification of species and its implications. Species are commodified everywhere: we pay admission to zoos to see exotic animals, we buy stuffed elephants and bears for our children, we dress up with ears and tails and whiskers for Halloween, we even… auction off species’ names to the highest bidder? When I learned about Cassidy’s Poison Dart Frog, I was intrigued as to how this Colombian endemic came to be named after a former Duke student. And, of course, I was jealous that someone got such a cool frog named in their honor.

            Early in the week, we went for a long, uphill hike to a patch of forest at the peak of a nearby mountain. I had been birding for so many days in a row, I had started to regard my binoculars as a permanent accessory to my face. But now, I was stealthily creeping through damp leaf litter, eyes cast on the ground and ears tuned in to the cricket-like chirps of Cassidy’s frog. I spotted two of the gorgeous bright red and black nickel-sized frogs – the only pair seen that evening. I felt proud that last semester’s Herpetology class hadn’t failed me. Professor Pimm made a short congratulatory video to send to Cassidy, reaffirming that the frog bearing her name was still hopping around the mountain peaks of Colombia. I asked who this mysterious woman was.

            It turns out, Cassidy and her family had been important financial backers of Professor Pimm’s organization Saving Species. Cassidy was especially enthusiastic in raising funds for the organization. So much so that when she graduated from Duke, she was presented with perhaps the most awesome graduation gift ever: a newly discovered species of poison dart frog was to be named after her. This is not the first time, and certainly not the last time, that a species has been named after a person. Sometimes organizations raise money for themselves by auctioning off the right to name a species to the highest bidder. This seems like an ingenious plan to fundraise or even thank a particularly important donor or naturalist. Yet I can’t help but object to the commodification of species in such a way.

            Naming a species after yourself seems selfish, or at least, egocentric. I understand the appeal of it though – what novel idea! But the places in which new species are being discovered, like this reserve in Colombia, often have a rich history of indigenous people, a local culture, and a relationship to the wildlife. Instead of tying an endemic animal to the culture of the area, it gets named after a rich outsider who may or may not have been to the place in which the species was discovered. It generates an attitude of “sell-ability” of species, but it comes at a price too expensive for anyone but those living in very fortunate circumstances. Even naming a species in somebody’s honor still implies that a specie’s namesake can be bought and sold. These people are often of European descent. European influence and interference in South America is a complicated story.

            Perhaps it is human nature to resist giving without getting something in return. Not everyone cares deeply about the environment in the way that I do, so commodifying nature to incentivize donations makes sense. Donate fifty bucks and get a plush sloth. Donate a quarter million and have your generosity immortalized in taxonomy. Save some trees on the side. I imagine if we relied on pure altruism from people, the projects on this reserve would be scanter for resources. It’s a frustrating conclusion to come to: I don’t like the idea of commodifying species in such a way, but it ultimately drives conservation efforts forward. As long as conservation groups are trying to find ways to get money (I’ve heard this called “professional begging”), it makes sense to follow lucrative opportunities. I wish there were ways to transcend reality. If only people would be just as generous without expecting reward. If only naming a species after yourself came with more thoughtfulness and less selfishness. In any case, I have no doubt that the contributions that Cassidy and her family made to La Mesenia have propelled it into the strong project that it is today. If those red and black poison dart frogs are still chirping today thanks to the efforts of a former Duke student, then how can I object to them being named in her honor?

Andrea Kolarova is a T’20 Undergraduate and a 2018 Kenan Summer Fellows Participant. 

All posts by