On the battlefields of World War I, field medics were working under the most horrific of conditions. Faced with a steady stream of desperately wounded soldiers, doctors and nurses had to take tough decisions to categorize their patients by who needed urgent care in order to survive, those who would most likely live without immediate attention, and those who would almost certainly die anyway, no matter what happened. These three categories became known as ‘triage.’ The intense humanity, and ethical difficulty, of these decisions, made under duress in conditions with very few beds, very little medication, and few surgeons, is about as profound a moral dilemma as any that we ever face in life.
Conservation triage, like medical triage, is one of those difficult, uncomfortable solutions we face in life as conservation professionals. There is never enough conservation attention, time, money, or staff, to go around. How do we make the decisions about where best to allocate our limited resources? Is medical triage a useful analogy for these even more desperate decisions – whether to let an entire species slip from the face of the Earth?
This is the elephant in the conservation ‘room.’ We don’t like to talk about conservation triage – and certainly I do not. Admitting that we might not be able to save every species is, to me, anguishing. But discuss it we must. For Rome is burning – and we in the conservation community must not be accused of fiddling, like Nero – of ‘wasting money’ on charismatic species that are already demographically or genetically committed to extinction.
The whole concept of ‘extinction commitment’ is a thorny one. When we take the long view, looking back through palaeoecological time, we know that species come and go from the fossil record. ‘Clades’ of species, or branches of the evolutionary trees of life, may be snuffed out through time by palaeoclimate change or, occasionally, by cataclysmic events such as the Cretaceous -Tertiary extinction event – which was likely caused by a meteorite as established by Walter Alvarez and colleagues. But we know that in terms of population and genetic processes, some species cannot recover from severe population bottlenecks without very, very intensive and expensive efforts, such as the conservation success stories of Mauritius’ endemic bird fauna like the Mauritius kestrel and pink pigeon.
In the current free-market economy of conservation, organizations have been competing, separating their niches, polishing up their annual reports and hinging their conservation reputations on different approaches. Some of the biggest and best-funded organizations on the planet have built their reputations on the high-profile conservation of large, charismatic mammals. Would all, indeed any, of these species survive without intensive and very expensive interventions? Why should we not try? Does the fact that one organization may be able to raise $250 million to save a tiger mean that other organizations and species sink and become extinct for lack of funds?
These dilemmas are profound: morally, ethically, spiritually, scientifically. We don’t have answers. All I ask is that we start up the discussion again, ask the questions more clearly, without ducking the issue. And that we are all clear what our purpose is as conservation biologists.
In my case, my personal purpose is to get as many species and habitats as possible through the gauntlet of the next few hundred years of dangerous environmental change. This may often mean bracing ourselves to accept big changes in ecological communities. And it certainly means re-establishing ecological connectivity in what are currently very highly modified human landscapes. Let’s have that dialogue.