Thursday, November 17, 2011

Should conservationists give up?

According to the latest IUCN Red List, the Western Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis longipes), a subspecies of the African Black Rhinoceros, is now extinct in the wild (IUCN website, NPR News). Closer to home, the Javan Rhinoceros is "making its last stand", being extinct outside of the island of Java. Although captive populations exist in zoos around the world, it is unlikely that they'll ever be reintroduced into the wild in a viable way.

This has made some conservationists wonder: is it even worth the trouble to try and save all these species?  They're not saying that we should give up entirely, but that we should set up a kind of conservation triage. "Triage" is a term which might be familiar to viewers of medical dramas on TV. It refers to sorting incoming patients according to their need for treatment and their possibility of survival. If resources are limited, care has to be parceled out, and we don't want to spend everything trying to save the ultimately unsavable. In this BBC News viewpoints article, we hear from the two sides of the triage debate.

I think that when the issue of conservation is framed in these terms, it really accentuates the different approaches to conservation, which in turn say something about why people want to save wildlife in the first place. Some people want to save landscapes in a holistic way, while others champion particular charismatic species.

If we had to choose which species to save, to "bring on the ark", so to speak, which ones would you bring? The most charismatic and aesthetically beautiful species may appeal to our human senses, but they need not be the keystone species that really hold the ecosystem together. In most cases, we don't even know enough about the ecology of a particular landscape to make that call.

In my opinion, ex situ conservation offers less return on investment than putting money into establishing reserves or policing existing ones. The Western Black Rhino did not go extinct because there weren't enough people who wanted to see it in zoos, but because of poaching in the wild. We can pull species out from the environment and keep them alive for a while, or maybe even a long time, but can we possibly hope to reassemble that ecosystem after everything has been wiped clean?

Take the unfortunate case of the land snail Powelliphanta augusta from New Zealand. It was discovered only in 1996 on a mountain ridge that was about to be cleared to make way for an open cast coal mine, and so 4000 individuals were caught and painstakingly relocated, 1600 being kept in refrigerated containers in a government conservation facility. What happened next is one of those things that really make you want to laugh even though it's sad, because of the sheer silliness of it:
Unfortunately, a fault in a sensor plunged the temperature in one of the units to zero, and 800 of the snails — a sizeable fraction of the entire species — froze to death. The fault was not noticed immediately because it happened over a public holiday.
The editorial in Nature that cites this episode calls for more "political will" to back conservation, but I think that this will has to be directed carefully.

I can't help but be reminded of tortoises when I think about captive breeding programs. The ethologist Konrad Lorenz, in one of his popular books, wrote that he wouldn't recommend turtles or tortoises as pets to the novice pet-keeper. Although they can survive for a long time under indifferent care, they're not really thriving. They just "slowly dying".

Things are not going to get better for captive-bred species. There probably won't be a happily-ever-after where they can be released to run free once again in their native habitats, because those habitats are on their way to being wiped out completely.  Perhaps it's time to put our efforts into saving habitats instead of collecting tortoises.

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