“Conservation resources are typically targeted towards a small group of flagship species like tigers or elephants, but there are many other species that get completely overlooked and that represent huge amounts and really important parts of biodiversity,” remarks Andrew Terry, Director of Conservation and Policy at the Zoological Society of London. This was the thinking behind his organization’s decision to found the EDGE of Existence program, with the initials in EDGE standing for “evolutionary distinct and globally endangered.”
Precisely because they were so little known, some of these species promptly became ambassadors for their own endangered status. “They are wonderful, they are odd,” says Terry, recalling the image of a Mary River turtle that made its way around the world, its head crowned with a punk mohawk of algae. The turtle is one of those singular “EDGE” species that have headed up numerous press articles alerting the public to their precarious state of conservation. “All these wacky stories capture people’s imagination,” Terry admits. But they are also a vital means to raise funding for conservation actions.
What Terry and his colleagues discovered was that whole branches of the tree of life that were poorly known and little studied were already critically endangered. And their disappearance would mean the extinction of an entire evolutionary lineage, as well as losing us an invaluable source of scientific knowledge. As Terry puts it, “if these species go, millions of years of evolutionary history go with them, as does all of the knowledge that their genomes hide.”
His team soon realized that the key to conserving species under the EDGE label was to support conservation actors in the countries where they occur. Their solution was to create a fellowship program providing two-year grants to individuals in Latin America, Africa and Asia to design and implement a conservation project targeting one of the EDGE species. In the past fifteen years, the program has funded 137 people in 47 countries. In the words of the jury, “its involvement in training young researchers at local level has succeeded in establishing a stable worldwide network of conservationists.”
“There are so many deeply skilled, deeply passionate conservationists who just do not get the right opportunity, because they cannot break into international funding mechanisms,” Terry explains. The program’s goal is to help fellows take their first step along this route, building their understanding of how to engage global donors, connect with global support networks or build their own NGOs.
To this end, training courses are organized in project regions and centrally in London, where fellows learn to design and implement the conservation action for which funding was granted. The program also has a team of coordinators who lend support on the ground to ensure projects move ahead successfully.
From its beginnings, the EDGE program’s first goal was to come up with a reliable method to rank the conservation priority of different species, factoring not only the level of threat they faced, but their importance for biodiversity. In doing so, they drew on the most up-to-date scientific knowledge to devise a scoring system that assessed how unique each species was from an evolutionary standpoint.
But of course threat status varies over time, and as new research is conducted on the tree of life, the position of species can change within the overall map of biodiversity. In many cases, biases in favor of taxonomic groups like mammals, birds or reptiles have been progressively discarded, while other groups, like invertebrates, plants and fungi, have gained importance as a study subject.
This is why the EDGE program recently updated its species scoring metric; in every case, as Andrew Terry relates, “responding to the best available knowledge.” For the same reason, research undertaken within the program is invariably published in peer-reviewed journals. “And even before that,” he continues, “we present the science to people in our field, so they can challenge it and help us refine it.”
Proof of its long-term success is that 100 percent of program fellows continue working in conservation once their funding has expired, with 80 percent still dedicated to the species they signed up to help. These statistics reaffirm Terry’s conviction that “empowering local leaders is how you create a sustainable pathway towards conservation.” These individuals, he adds, “go on to do amazing things, they win awards, they achieve great scientific discoveries… They become leaders in their own space, and it’s all because we help them find the tools to launch their careers.”
The EDGE program lays great importance on accompanying its fellows during their next career stages, at times supporting them through initiatives funded by a network of conservation donors. “We want to help prepare them for their future journey,” says Terry, “ensuring they have the skills and the capacity to target bigger funding.”
Affiliate Caleb Ofori-Boateng is a case in point. With the EDGE fellowship he won in 2012, he succeeded in protecting 100 hectares of habitat of the Togo slippery frog (Conraua derooi), an EDGE species, as well as discovering an entire new species of endangered amphibian. As of this year, he is Regional Director of EDGE of Existence projects in Africa, where he will lead new generations on the fellowship program that shaped his own professional career.
However, conservation is never about one species alone, since each occurs within a habitat whose equilibrium it depends on for its survival: “We always view the species as the tip of the iceberg,” says Terry. “And typically, the reason why they’re threatened is that there have been major pressures on their habitats. So you need to address those pressures.” Local communities too have a key role to play in protecting threatened wildlife, since they may at times be repositories of valuable knowledge that it is important to safeguard along with the species.
It is for these reasons that EDGE of Extinction has recently partnered with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew to produce an equivalent to the EDGE list, only for plants instead of animals. “They are the basis of the ecosystem, and, as such, absolutely vital,” says Terry, who ventures that further ahead this project may be extended to other taxonomic groups.
But perhaps the most immediate priority he sees is to expand the current program. “We have trained 137 fellows, a huge achievement of which we’re justly proud. But, then again, that’s only 137 people, and we are right in the midst of a global extinction crisis. I want to double that, I want to quadruple that, I want to really see it grow and develop.”
To take EDGE more global, they have begun forging links with other organizations. One example is their recent alliance with the U.S. Rainforest Trust to fund the conservation of areas harboring EDGE species. Terry hopes that this is just the start of a long list of collaborations: “We want to work with a network of like-minded organizations who can really ramp up the ambition we have around a shared view of a section of life that is just completely overlooked.”
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