Monday, 20 December 2004

Tiger Conservation misses out on large donation

One of the great innovations of the last few years has been the Public Library of Science (PLOS) an on-line, Internet publication, of peer-reviewed scientific papers. A brilliant concept, giving ready access to a wide range of scientists, all over the world. The latest edition of the Biology section has an interesting paper on the classification of tigers authored by 22 scientists, using DNA analysis of living and dead specimens of tigers from all over their range. Interestingly, the analysis confirmed that most of the subspecies described in the past, are actually reflected in the DNA of the animals studied, and the DNA also suggested that another subspecies, not previously described, should be recognised from Malaya.

But what a missed opportunity. The scientists decided to name the subspecies Panthera tigris jacksoni in honour of Peter Jackson, the former chairman of the IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group. An excellent choice, as few people have done more in the cause of conservation or tigers. But what a waste, as I am sure Peter would agree. Just think how much money could have been raised if the name had been auctioned. Someone may well have paid several thousands of dollars to have the honour of a tiger subspecies being named after them.

For many years now I have been trying to persuade scientists naming new species of animals to put the names up for auction and use the money for conserving endangered species. But there is a vogue for naming new species after fellow scientists, or after a geographical feature where the species is found. And many scientists seem to think this is the 'right' way of doing it, and it is wrong to use naming as a form of patronage. Of course this is not true – from the beginning of scientific nomenclature, whim came into it. Linnaeus – the great Swede who started it all -- named attractive flowers after his friends, his favourite plant after himself, and a few weeds after people he didn't like. Wealthy patrons of scientific collecting, such as Lord Rothschild ended up having numerous species named after them, as did the kings, queens and princes of Europe – most of whom seemed to have 'acquired' birds of paradise during the 19th century. And numerous naturalists named species after their wives and girlfriends. So what more fitting way of commemorating a substantial donation to conservation, than to name a new subspecies after the person who gives the most money? The only time I can recall this happening was in the case of the Lower Keys subspecies of the Cottontail Rabbit Sylvilagus palustris hefneri –named after Hugh Hefner, the owner of the Playboy Clubs and Bunnygirls.

If any taxonomist reads this and wants to try auctioning a name, to aid conservation, I would be pleased to assist. Obviously the bigger and prettier the animal or plant, the more likely it is to raise money. It might even raise enough money to buy a whole nature reserve -- what better commemoration of a donation. Esso could surely have afforded a few hundred thousand dollars to have it named Panthera tigris essoi -- a royalty on the image of the tiger that has successfully promoted their worldwide sales and enough to buy a reserve to conserve it.

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