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Species fixation

4 September 2010

Worth saving?

I read an interesting article on New Scientist the other day: Conservation and compassion – first do no harm. It highlighted the ethical dilemma of saving a species (in this case the black-footed ferret) by breeding them in captivity and then teaching them how to hunt by feeding them live golden hamsters and black-tailed prairie dogs. Many thousands of these small mammals are used as ‘learning prey’ every year to keep the wild population of black-footed ferrets healthy.

While the New Scientist-article mainly focused on the ethical aspect of this procedure (which to be fair isn’t all that different from breeding cattle for slaughter), I just found it astonishing how much effort was being spent on saving a single species. I’m not an anti-conservationist, but I really don’t see how focusing our energy on single species will stop or even slow down the current mass extinction. It’s just isn’t a viable way of spending our limited resources.

Imagine if you will a vast library, containing millions upon millions of unique books each filled with huge amounts of information and facts. Now imagine that there is a fire raging, and several sections of the library is already fully ablaze.

Burning knowledge

Assuming that we want to save as much information as possible, what should we do? We don’t have enough water to extinguish the fire completely, and we don’t have the time and resources to move the books to safety. We could go through the books one by one to determine which ones are most worth saving, but meanwhile most of the library would go up in smoke. Or we could focus on saving the few books we know anything about, or the ones we like the look of, judging them by their covers.

The sad truth is that whatever we do, a huge number of books will be lost forever, but to save as big a selection of books as possible we need to employ methods used in fighting wildfires. By creating fireroads, we could isolate sections of the library and hopefully save all the books in that area. We could then manage each section separately and suppress any new fires starting up.

Saving the world, one ecosystem at a time.

It should be fairly obvious by now that the library symbolise nature and the books represent individual species. And that focusing our efforts on saving individual species is fruitless. Rather, we need to make sure we can save as many whole ecosystems as possible, which in turn would help preserve the species making up those ecosystems.

Our planet consists of a vast network of interacting and overlapping webs of life, and our only hope to preserve even a fraction of the current biodiversity is to treat the whole system holistically. Even if that means letting some species go extinct.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. peter permalink
    25 June 2012 10:51

    yes fully agree! saving the man overboard while the ship is sinking makes no sense. The vast resources that go into IUCN’s Red List is a good eaxmple, simply documenting dissapearance doesnt help, its a form of philately…
    but i must take you up on the use of preserve. many conservation papers fall into this trap, but the word must be conserve, which keeps that element of action. The CBD has The Ecosystem Approach which offers excellent guidance on this, and which all signatories accept, some even talk about, but few if any implement!
    we are i think getting to the stage where if want certain species (black-footed ferrets, say) then we can have them, but in zoo-like situations, rather than try to pretend there is wild space for them..
    of course all this leads to inconvenient questions, like “how many species do we actually need…..”
    enough already.. great post!


    • 26 June 2012 04:03

      Hi Peter, and thank you! Glad you liked the post!

      Yes, it does seem stupid at times, spending vast resources on single species. And “how many species do we need?” – well, my view is that a lot of what we’re doing is trying to keep nature the way we want it, keep it as it was. The simple fact is that, even after this current mass extinction, nature will bounce back. It probably won’t look anything like what we would like it to look like, though..

      (Re preserve/conserve:

      Preserve – To protect; to keep; to maintain the condition of.

      Conserve – To protect an environment.

      Tomato, tomahto, potato, potahto..?)


      • peter permalink
        26 June 2012 08:17

        the preserve/conserve question is interesting, as is protect. and it is not just dictionary definitions. When most people talk about preserve or protect they mean “keep as is” which means no intervention. which means change!!! which is why many national parks in US and Australia, Canada etc having followed a protection pathway and stopped burning now face holocaust wildfires… whereas conservation actually means following interventions to keep something as is ie if you want a wetland with open water you keep removing vegetation… if you protect it soon its solid ground!! gary larson once had a great cartoon headed “wildlife preserves”, where there was a sterile landscape with jam jars containing some wildlife elements…
        i have a book chapter i wrote in 2008 id like to send you if you dm an email on twitter (if you’d like it, of course!)


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