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Photograph by Brad Swonetz
The Realist
Conservation | Jonathan Baillie | Preserving the planet’s biodiversity

Jonathan Baillie is not an alarmist. He’s a pragmatist, which makes what he’s about to say so scary: “We’re entering a period of mass extinction. Some 40 percent of species on Earth will likely disappear over the next hundred years.”

With this grim time line in mind, Baillie, the conservation programs director at the Zoological Society of London, established the EDGE initiative to protect the world’s most genetically unique species (EDGE stands for Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered). If we’ve got limited time to safeguard the planet’s biodiversity, the best approach, Baillie reasons, is not to conserve closely related creatures. It’s to focus on genetic outliers: the duck-billed platypus, the long-beaked echidna, the golden-rumped elephant shrew. EDGE is a 21st-century ark of misfits; Baillie is its Noah.

In some ways, EDGE operates like any conservation group, with Baillie and team visiting exotic places to set up field programs (recently he’s been to Mongolia to track wild Bactrian camels and to Nepal to protect Asian rhinos from poachers). But a look at the EDGE website (edgeofexistence.org) reveals a conservation model that goes one better, allowing anyone to help save these rare species. Stories posted on the site have gone viral, instigated letter campaigns, and provoked government reform. “It’s not a group of conservationists that’s going to solve the problems facing all these species,” Baillie says. “It’s conservation becoming mainstream.”

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