How much is an elephant worth? Meet the ecologists doing the sums

29 Jan 2021

Patrick Greenfield
Published on 28 Jan 2021 in The Guardian

The services of forest elephants are worth $1.75m for each animal, the International Monetary Fund’s Ralph Chamihas estimated; more than the $40,000 a poacher might get for shooting the mammal for ivory. Whales are worth slightly more at over $2m, he also estimates, due to their “startling” carbon capture potential, and therefore deserve better protection.

It is a highly controversial way of thinking about nature and Naeem, a professor of ecology at Columbia University, often relies on humour to explain it. It doesn’t mean that fungi are about to unionise and charge humans for decomposition services, he assures me. Although, if they did, it would get expensive. We would be in even bigger trouble if the trees started to charge us for oxygen. Really, he says, ecosystem services are meant to help us understand that plants, animals and intact ecosystems are worth more to humans alive than dead.

“You have to realise that people will value ecosystem services whether we like it or not. They’ll say: ‘If we change the Pantanal in Brazil [the world’s largest tropical wetland] for cattle, this is how much money we’ll make.’ Our job is to explain that’s not actually how you do it. You have to include all these other things the Pantanal does, not just the production of beef,” he says, speaking ahead of a Global Landscapes Forum event last October.

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