Resources for saving many species are pretty scarce and often only a few individuals are supporting a whole species. It begs the question: which species is worth saving? This is a controversial question but realistically not all species can be saved from the threat of extinction. It is an agonising decision to decide who to allocate the resources and time to. It is a tough admission; not all species are equal. Should we preserve those that provide a necessary or unique function or those that we find attractive and ‘cute’? BH Walker proposed rather than choosing a species to preserve, an ecosystem function should be conserved and wes should let species that seem ‘redundant’ to be lost to extinction. However, what do we know about how an ecosystem needs to properly function? Time after time we have taken keystone species out on environment without realising the damage we have done such as the Grey Wolf. Removal may result in an ‘extinction cascade’.
A quantitative approach can be taken. The Zoological Society of London sorts animals by the EDGE of Existence programme where they are ordered according to amount of unique evolutionary history or phylogenetic diversity and its conservation status taken from IUCN. Many overlooked species have been highlighted by this approach such as the long-beaked echidna and the pygmy three-toed sloth. This approach could provide a way to prioritise resources.
However,the science behind the basis for phylogenetic diversity is poor. There is debate about whether umbrella, keystone flagship or indicator species should be preserved. Many advocate for the umbrella species as they will provide the most, but a flagship species such as the giant panda engages the interest of the public. On the other hand, an indicator species highlights the problem in the ecosystem. Perhaps the most simplistic but successful theory is hotspot work as pioneered by Norman Myers where protection should be offered to areas where there is a high number of species (animals and plants).
As ever the higher vertebrates dominate the conservation funds. It makes sense. The species that we can see, watch, enjoy and sometimes engage with are going to win the hearts of the public much more than the amphibians, lesser plants and invertebrates that actually show the true health of the ecosystem.
What has to be decided is when it is time to stop. When a species is a lost cause.When in triage, not everyone can be saved. At what point do we ask whether we need these animals or do we want them?
Background extinction is a natural process and as humans alter nature, we have to decide if trying to preserve all of them is a futile job. Surely the species that we have brought to its knees we should do everything we can to try and preserve. It is unfortunately predominantly the fault of humans that these species are in triage. It cannot be ignored that each animal has its own intrinsic value and as humans we have to decide whether we have the right to judge who is worthy of our time and money.
“This sounds simple: do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the land of the free and the home of the brave? Yes, but just what and whom do we love? Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter down river. Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage. Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate whole communities without batting an eye. Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the largest and most beautiful species. A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state. In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.” – Aldo Leopold