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Triage for endangered species?

Saturday 12th November 2011

Triage for endangered species?

A few days after LionAid urged greater attention to vulnerable rather than endangered species for conservation attention, an article in the Independent Newspaper posed this question “Is it time to give up on tigers and pandas?”. The online responses to the article range from outrage to lesser rage to acceptance.

The journalist based his article on a published report in the journal Conservation Biology by Dr Murray Rudd, an environmental economist at York University, UK. Unfortunately, the journalist got Rudd’s message all wrong (hence the hype about tigers and pandas). This is an important subject that needs reporting accurately and should not be turned into a piece of sensationalist writing.

 The journalist focused on the concept of “triage” a medical term generally applicable for those wounded in wars, natural disasters, or terrorist events. A large number of wounded people all at once presented to hospitals are “triaged” – basically meaning evaluated in terms of their needs for immediate attention versus being able to wait a bit longer until the most urgent cases have been cleared by the limited number of surgeons and operating rooms available. It does not mean such other patients will not be attended to, only that they must wait a bit while given supportive care.

Perhaps it has to do with this triage word. It has come to take the meaning that patients – or species – with no hope are allowed to die, while those with a better chance of survival are given treatment with the limited resources we have available. In an emergency we cannot save everyone “triage” is meant to imply, and we must focus on those that have a chance. That is the unfortunate consequence of using such provocative words out of context.

The concept of environmental, and indeed species triage has a long history, and has started to take on a completely erroneous meaning. Murray Rudd is certainly not wrong to use the word, but perhaps he should have avoided it. His study asked very good questions, and never really mentioned abandoning tigers and pandas. That was an invention by the journalist.

An article in 2008 by a group of scientists from the University of Queensland in Australia (Is conservation triage just smart decision making? – Trends in Ecology and Evolution 2008 23 (12): 649-654) pretty much said the same thing:

“Although often used implicitly by conservation managers, scientists and policymakers, triage has been misinterpreted as the process of simply deciding which assets (e.g. species, habitats) will not receive investment. As a consequence, triage is sometimes associated with a defeatist conservation ethic. However, triage is no more than the efficient allocation of conservation resources and we risk wasting scarce resources if we do not follow its basic principles”


They go on to say “In an ideal world, there would be enough money to save everything  but instead we are faced with a growing list of species at imminent risk of extinction, declining habitat extent and condition, uncertainty about the likelihood of our investment success and inadequate conservation budgets. Under these conditions, it is essential that scarce resources are allocated to maximise the persistence of valuable assets (e.g. biological features) that will disappear without treatment, that is, without conservation action”.  They acknowledge that human-induced extinction rates are “are up to 1000 times the natural extinction rate and progress toward the 2010 biodiversity target to reduce significantly the rate of extinction has been limited despite six years of concerted conservation investment and action”.

The Alliance for Zero Extinction took issue with this 2008 report, and said the amount of funding invested in bailouts of the US auto industry (and the later bank bailouts and Greece they were not yet aware of) were sums of money far greater than those needed to achieve zero extinction. But those are sad pipe dreams in terms of what we are willing to spend on conservation.  I cannot imagine the US Congress or the UK Parliament voting equivalent funds to bail out extinction of species?

But let’s come back to Murray Rudd at York University. Conservation organizations do not like economic assessments of effectiveness, but Murray was only trying to inject some timely realism. Basically it means that conservation biologists need to be willing to accept some (unfortunate) truths. In the paper, some of the following statements spring out:

a) Treating species and ecosystems as commodities was generally viewed negatively.

b) We need more rules, better monitoring, increased enforcement, and larger fines. Making damaging human behavior illegal and expensive is central to any strategy meant to protect biological diversity.

c) The majority of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that conservational professionals need to be willing to rethink conservation goals and standards of success.

d) We could be on the cusp of a period of evolution in thinking about how conservation goals might be redefined and realized as the effects of human activities and climate change escalate rapidly.

e) “Trade in wild species and their products can work as a tool for conservation” was one of Rudd’s questions – only 7.6% of scientists agree.  Beware trophy hunters…

So there you have it.

In a nutshell, and perhaps belatedly, conservation scientists are asking about money invested in the past versus progress to avoid further losses for endangered species. In that sense, perhaps the Tiger is a good example.

Estimates indicate it will cost $82 million per year now to protect tigers in 42 "source sites" that make up only about 6% of the tiger's current range, or about 0.5% of the area it used to span. John Robinson of the Wildlife Conservation Society (New York) is of the opinion that as tigers breed well in captivity, they can “bounce back” in the wild. That means $27,333 per tiger. They could each have individual bodyguards with that amount of money?

Tigers have been on the conservation agenda by organisations like WWF for at least a decade. All we have seen is declines despite great donor investment. “The need for open and objective dialogue on tiger conservation is pressing. "Reputations need to be suppressed in the interests of identifying and testing new strategies to deliver sustainable conservation of the tiger before it is too late for the species" said Hank Jenkins in 2007

In the same year, the Telegraph reported WWF Tiger projects failing -  “The only vaguely silver-lining is that for decades, population figures for India's tigers have been the very definition of "lies, damned lies and statistics." In the past, a number of bureaucrats and forestry officials faked tiger tracks and colluded to claim that declining populations were stable, and avoid criticism or the sack”.

Grim. Yet more and more Tiger NGOs are now rushing to the fore (Tigers are “in” these days, even rather incongruent people like Vladimir Putin and Leonardo Di Caprio are apparently joining forces) and are calling for new funds. Yet there is still nothing new under the sun in terms of Tiger innovative strategies and solutions. What I would controversially suggest is a triage of conservation organizations based on a forthright assessment of past performance? Investment versus returns?

Conservation effectiveness needs constant assessments, new ideas, and progress?



Tags: Pandas, Tigers,

Categories: Extinction

Posted by Pieter Kat at 15:11

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