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Wildlife - a good bet?

Richard Black | 17:19 UK time, Monday, 24 May 2010

Bookmakers_at_racecourseDefinitely the oddest take I've yet seen on the Gulf of Mexico oil leak passed across my desk today, in the form of a notification from bookmakers Paddy Power that they're taking bets on the first species to go extinct as a result of the pollution.

Kemp's Ridley turtle garners the shortest odds at four to five. Candidates at longer prices include elkhorn coral and the smalltooth sawfish at 20 to one.

Intrigued, I called up Ken Robertson, the firm's head of communications, for a quick chat.

The bets weren't exactly flooding in, he told me.

But given what he sees as BP's lack of success in tackling the leak, it's a book likely to remain open considerably longer than a horse race, or even a full cricket test-match series.

I wondered, though, whether species extinctions are a suitable subject for gambling. Isn't inviting people to estimate the relative odds of two species taking the dodo trail in the pursuit of cash just a bit - well - tasteless?

Mr Robertson countered with the opposite notion. It's actually a positive thing for conservation, he said, because punters whose knowledge of the natural world extends to horses and greyhounds might discover a bit more in the process of trying to beat the odds.

If he's right - and I'd welcome your views on whether he is - then this must count as one of the most innovative strategies ever devised for "spreading awareness".

Kemps_RidleyCampaigners - and sometimes politicians - spend hour after anguished hour debating how to reach people who are not currently interested in, or aware of, environmental issues.

Their standard output is the report - often eminently worthwhile, but reaching few beyond the immediate circle of those who already follow that particular thread.

A case in point from the last couple of days is BirdLife International's recent (and thoroughly worthy) report on European lack of progress towards the 2010 biodiversity target.

"We know what to do. The question is: do Europeans have the will and the courage to take action before it is too late?"

... said BirdLife's Ariel Brunner.

Another question - perhaps more important - would be: do Europeans know about the situation? It's hard to care either way if you don't.

Brown_pelicansThat many people are unaware even of hugely raucous environmental issues was demonstrated graphically by the BBC survey on climate change earlier this year, which showed that about 40% of the UK population had not been aware of the Copenhagen summit - extraordinary from the standpoint of someone who saw it leading the news agendas of virtually all British broadcasters and newspapers for a solid fortnight, but true nevertheless.

So, reaching the punters that other campaigns do not is, for many, an absolute grail.

Environmental groups paint murals, film-makers recount the demise of life in the oceans.

Rock bands develop "lower-carbon" tour plans, wildlife groups encourage us to take the kids out for a day's nature observing in the countryside (you know, that other place, the one where we don't live, that has more cows than cars...)

But still - in the campaigners' world view - the balance weighing public opinion stubbornly refuses to shift.

Whether Paddy Power's product will make any more difference to people's "awareness" of environmental issues is anyone's bet at the moment (sorry, I'm contractually obliged to use at least one cheesy pun in a piece like this...)

But if it does, you can expect to see quite a few greens queuing up to talk to the bookies about other issues that might be worth a flutter.

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