Endangered wild animals can pay for own protection
December 07 2021 11:44 PM

It will soon be possible to give a digital identity to individual wild animals whose species are at risk of extinction. Currently, these animals’ only economic value is that of their processed body parts. Giving them a digital wallet linked to their identity and the ability to spend money on their own protection could improve their lives and increase their chances of survival.
The Great Apes, including gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos, are ideal early candidates for an “Interspecies Money” approach. Only 700,000 of our closest evolutionary cousins survive and their numbers are in steep decline: picture a population equivalent to Washington, DC, scattered in forests along dirt roads or at the edge of thousands of isolated, poor, and fast-growing villages. Humans and Great Apes have not lived well together in the industrial era, but we can do better in the post-industrial age.
We propose starting with orangutans. Only 120,000 of these intelligent red apes remain alive in their forest habitats of Sumatra and Borneo. Although $1bn has been spent protecting them since 2000, more than 100,000 have been lost to deforestation, harassment, and killing over the same period. The situation could have been worse – some 135,000 orangutans would have died without the conservation efforts – but the investments can hardly be claimed as successful.
The conservation logic for orangutans is simple enough. The apes share the forest with people who make their living from the cultivation of crops and forest products. Both like the same products. Conflicts arise. Asking forest people to put up with their orangutan neighbours isn’t enough. They need to know that it is profitable for them to do so. But little conservation money reaches the frontline where it can have the greatest effect.
This is where technology offers new possibilities for truer stewardship of nonhuman life on Earth. On the hardware side, a Cambrian explosion of computation, data storage, smartphones, cameras, sensors, drones, ground robots, satellites, and genomics is allowing us to track nature in higher definition at lower cost. On the software side, advances in artificial intelligence, metaverse-building gaming platforms, and distributed crypto and blockchain governance solutions will enable us to represent other species online in entirely novel ways.
There is plenty of money in cryptocurrencies available to prove a new “tokenomics” for nature; crypto innovators are astonishingly successful at creating digital scarcity that accrues in value. It is inevitable that the living scarcity of endangered species will become an asset class for those holding cryptocurrencies. The question is how to approach this in a way that is useful for the species and for the people looking after them.
We plan to endow the first digital wallets for orangutans with the proceeds of the sale of related non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Every wallet will have scientists and other signatories charged with making decisions in the interests of the orangutan. Over time, the process will become “Schrödingerian”: a wallet will be created when an ape is reliably observed for the first time. Interspecies Money will be paid to people from funds in the wallets for adhering to simple and verifiable rules. These rules will be set by the orangutans (or more exactly the human and computational proxies representing their needs). These could include such tasks as “observe me over time,” “leave my tree alone,” and “don’t kill me.”
Current conservation spending amounts to $1.30 a day per wild orangutan. We think $1 a day into an orangutan wallet would be transformative in most situations. US$400 a year is more than a child in the surrounding communities can expect in development assistance, but the orangutans’ survival is so precarious that this imbalance may be justified. Moreover, because Interspecies Money explicitly links nonhuman animals to human stewards, much of the money in the orangutan wallets will be passed along to farmers and their children as payment for gathering data or compensation for crop damage. — Project Syndicate

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