Thursday, 30 April 2009

Can we keep all the pieces?

A species I don't want to become extinct...

'Contrary to simply being an efficient approach...we feel that application of triage...has the potential to mimic carnage of the 19th century battlefields from which the practice arose. Under medical triage, the most injured soldiers were allowed to die when medical resources ran short.'

This stark reaction to applying the concept of 'triage' to nature conservation is from a letter by David Jachowski and Dylan Kesler to the journal Tends in Ecology and Evolution. They are responding to an article by Madeleine Bottill and co-authors advocating the use of a triage system for allocated limited conservation resources.

Jachowski and Kesler also cite conservationist Aldo Leopold, who said 'the first rule of an intelligent tinkerer is to keep all the pieces'. While they agree with Bottrill et al. about distributing resources efficiently, they 'disagree that resource allocation models should include extinction as an acceptable outcome'. That is, every species alive today should not be allowed to go extinct.

Another letter, from the Alliance for Zero Extinction, argue that Bottrill and colleague's assumptions are faulty...highly threatened species are not necessarily impossible, or costly, to save.' They cite the case of the Whooping Crane. 'A narrow triage approach might have written off the Whooping Crane, the population of which stood at 15 individuals in the early 20th century; however, thanks to conservation efforst, > 500 cranes now survive.' AZE, as they call themselves, argue for legally protected nature conservation sites, and 'if we follow this approach, we might just save everything'.

Local scientist from the Australian Museum, Dan Faith, weighs in to support Botrill and colleagues, while providing some advice on how they might improve their system! Dan says 'risk analysis approaches could help to minimise the maximum possible biodviersity losses'.

Finally, a letter of response from Bottrill and co-authors. They 'consider that these authors [the first two cohorts I mention] have confused two issues: the allocation of resources currently available for conservation and decisions on how much society should spend on conservation.'

They say their argument was 'that triage is not about abandoning difficult-to-save species, but rather about prioritizing actions given finite resources....Far from "sanctioning extinction in the name of efficiency", a conservation triage approach admits the possibility of extinction...'. Bottrill and colleagues end with 'while conservation weathers the present global recession, we foresee that prioritization will become ever more vital.'

Just to show my spots a little, I'd be interested in what species went extinct while the Whooping Crane (one species of megafauna) was the subject of the enthusiastic conservation efforts, and also at least a nodding reference to extinction as an essential part of the evolutionary process (i.e. sex and death). This is not to say that I accept us sitting back and allowing the species we live with today to go extinct - I've argued that case extensively at tedious length already.

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