Endangered wildlife should pay for its own protection

Giving wild apes digital wallets linked to their identities would mean that they will be able to 'spend money' on their own protection. This could increase their chances of survival.

orang utan in borneo
Only 120,000 orangutans remain alive in their forest habitats of Sumatra and Borneo. Image: Francoise Gaujour, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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, a financial mechanism that motivates human behaviour to self-organise around money held by an animal. 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 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 $1 billion 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 neighbors is not 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 non-human 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 to be precise, 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 dollars a year is more than what 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.

If the ‘Interspecies Money’ approach can be made to work for orangutans, it can work for other apes too, not least the western lowland gorilla, which is consumed as bushmeat in the Congo forest. Other species can include dugongs, giraffes, and orcas. There is also potential to advance to applying the technology to trees, birds, and even insect and microbial populations. A digital currency for other species, operated like a central bank for biodiversity, may emerge. Separately, NFTs of rare species could constitute a store of value that endows such an institution.

The threats to the Great Apes remind us of our lack of ambition when it comes to protecting other species more broadly. With growing human populations, apes can survive only if people agree to live peacefully alongside them. Paying the poorest people living next to the richest biodiversity in a clear and constant way is one step toward achieving that.

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