What’s your name?

A famous author once posed the question: what’s in a name? Unlike the characters tasked with answering that question, Emirates Airlines thinks there’s quite a bit in a name, at least £90 million: the price they paid for the right to name Arsenal FC’s stadium.  Similar deals in America are worth, on average, $1-$2 million annually.

The sale of these naming rights represents a major source of income for professional sports. And while environmentalists can’t offer the exposure that a professional sports stadium does, environmentalists should take note: this lucrative market could also, with regulation, be accessed by conservation organizations looking for funding.

International codes on taxonomy do not restrict how species are named, typically reserving this right to the individual(s) who discover a species, so some creative scientists have proposed auctioning the right to name newly discovered species as a way of financing the work necessary to protect those same species.  Supporters see it as a modern version of royal sponsorship with royalty replaced by celebrity.

One of the first examples of this type of species naming rights auction was in 2004. Dr. Robert Wallace, working with the World Conservation Society (WCS) on the edge of the Madidi National Park in Bolivia, discovered a new species of titi monkey.  The WCS has been involved with the protection of the Madidi area since the early 1990s and the Bolivian National Parks Service recognized the area as a national park in 1995. The park itself covers an area of 50,000 sq km and is home to 11% of the world’s bird species. But despite recognition as a park, illegal logging and agricultural growth threaten the forest. Dealing with these threats, and maintaining the protected area, costs an estimated $550,000 annually.

To cover some of this $550,000 budget, Dr. Wallace proposed an internet auction of the naming rights for the new monkey.  The monkey is now known as the Golden Palace Monkey (Callicebus aureipalatii) after an internet casino paid $650,000 for the rights.  100% of this winning bid went into a trust fund that now helps to pay for the management and preservation of the park.

After the success of the WCS’s Golden Palace auction, Conservation International followed their lead with an auction in 2007 for the right to name new marine species discovered in Indonesia. Conservation International partnered with Christies Auction House, the Indonesian Government, the Monaco-Asia Society and Monaco’s Prince Albert II to hold a naming rights auction with the goal of raising USD 2 million. When all was said and done, the auction raised a total of $2,045,000.  Compare this to CI’s 2007 $24 million budget for the entire Asia Pacific region; $2 million makes up almost 10% of that budget.

In contrast to the auctions offered by the WCS and Conservation International, the German nonprofit Biopat has taken a longer-term approach that could serve as the model for future funding through naming efforts.  Rather than auction off the rights to name species, Biopat adds newly discovered species to an online database that sponsors can access. Prices in this scenario typically range from $3,500 to $13,000 and since its inception in 1999, Biopat has raised over $500,000.

It is the age of Biopat that makes it notable. The sale of naming rights as a source of funding for conservation need not be a single event in the form of an auction.  Rather, when managed correctly and subject to rigorous peer review, ‘selling’ naming rights can be used as a long-term source of funding for conservation organizations that regularly encounter new species.

While the auctioning of species naming rights appears to be a good potential source of income for many conservation groups, not all groups are regularly presented with the discovery of new species on the lands that they work to conserve.

In this case, the example set by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) may provide a way forward.  For many years the Michigan DNR maintained a practice of prohibiting private foundations or individuals from attaching their names to public property.  Thus, when the Meijer foundation offered to pay $1 million to fund improvements at the White Pine Trail State Park – provided they were allowed to name it – the offer was refused. At that point, the Michigan legislature promulgated new legislation that would allow for private individuals who contribute to the DNR to receive temporary naming rights subject to several conditions.

Conservation organizations are going to face increasing demands on their funds in the future.  Finding innovative new ways to meet these funding demands is critical.  Selling the right to name newly discovered species is a unique source of funding that has already been utilized successfully.  Its large scale and long term viability remains to be seen, but it is a practice that appears to have a promising future for organizations which consistently encounter new species in their work.

The idea of sponsoring parks, easements and other types of land set aside is a much newer, and potentially more controversial, idea but one that also deserves consideration. To be clear, no one is advocating changing Yosemite National Park to Apple Inc. National Park, but allowing Apple to sponsor and attach their name to education initiatives within the park is a potential compromise and a way to fund programs that might otherwise be cut or never exist at all. Not every conservation organization is able to auction species naming rights and the auctioning of location naming rights offers an alternative way to access the funds of the private sector. So what’s in a name?  A lot of potential.