My friend Michelle Nijhuis’ writing seems to be appearing everywhere these days. The latest is a sharp article in the August 2012 Scientific American on conservation “triage” – that is, using some kind of algorithm (computer driven or not) to decide which species or areas we should focus limited conservation resources on, and which we should—regrettably—allow to demise. Michelle notes that there seems to be a dichotomy between pragmatism and idealism in the debate over whether even to utter the word “triage” with regard to conservation. On the idealistic side, Michelle quotes Stuart Pimm (he who channels The Lord of the Rings when discussing the value of bearing first hand witness to life’s diversity in a stirring piece within our Observation and Ecology book) who says, “triage is a four letter word.” On the pragmatic side are folks like Hugh Possingham, who has developed complex (but free) software that accounts for all sorts of factors in determining conservation “hot spots” or triaged priorities for protection. In the article, Possingham takes pains to note that his approach is focused on “actions” (which include the ecological, economic and social drivers of conservation), because that’s where species—sometimes multiple species—actually get saved. In one sense, I agree with this approach, in that all adaptation to difficult circumstances occurs at the level of actions that solve problems (something I deal with at length in my earlier book, Learning from the Octopus).

But I also think this view is errantly idealistic in another way altogether. I’ve seen many outputs of these types of models at conservation meetings and they typically involve high resolution maps coded in different colors to show a range, from high to low, of conservation priorities. These pictures tend to give one a sense of conservation as wonderfully stocked supermarket, where we can go in and choose things to conserve, filling our basket judiciously based on our current resources and how smart a shopper the models have made us. But real conservation seems more like a scary and unpredictable black market—someone jumps out of an alley and pulls open a coat with a spotty array of attractive goods pinned on the inside—do you buy them or not?

My reckoning takes me back to Stuart Pimm’s view – it’s too late for triage: buy all those watches, even if they might not be genuine grade A Rolexes. I’m thinking back to a night of drinking a few weeks ago at Shooter’s, my local mosque-turned-western-bar (only in Tucson, folks), where after lamenting the ecological decline of the Gulf of California, my good friend and superb Gulf naturalist Tad Pfister and I loudly brayed to the few other bewildered customers, “just paint the whole damn map red!”. Because, seriously, given the choice—when an old widower dies and wills her patch of land for a conservation project, are you going to turn it down because it’s not the right color on a map?

Later, in a more sober state, I was able to consider a so-far successful example of conservation that Michelle discusses in the article—the California Condor. Down to just 22 individuals in the 1980’s, many pragmatists suggested we let the species “die with dignity”. Fortunately, the idealists won out, and there are over 200 California condors living today. Yes, it cost a lot of money (only relatively speaking, though: the $35 million those 200+ birds cost US taxpayers is small change compared to another raptor, the F22 fighter jet, which costs $412 million each) to get there, but recently, on a camping trip to Havasupai with my 11 year old daughter, we spied one of those condors soaring high above the canyon, and that, my pragmatist conservation friends, is priceless.

Published On: July 29, 2012

Rafe Sagarin

Rafe Sagarin

Rafe Sagarin is a marine ecologist at the Institute of the Environment at University of Arizona. Rafe’s research includes everything from the historical and current sizes of intertidal gastropods (snails) to developing better ideas for national security, based on natural security systems. He is particularly interested in the Sea of Cortez, or Gulf of California, its ecological history, and the fascinating people past and present who have lived, worked, researched and journeyed there.

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