Responsibly Fighting Extinction
Conserving species can be expensive. Do we expend every effort to save them?
Preventing extinction is one of the highest goals of conservation for a plethora of reasons. This deserves it’s own discussion so I won’t cover it in full detail here. Suffice to say that extinction is an irreversible loss of precious life that all future generations will suffer from.
The goal of preventing extinction is the hope of eventually restoring the species to a state in which it can thrive on its own. If that is impossible (for one reason or another) then spending resources to conserve the species only keeps them on life support until funds run out. Responsible conservationists do not fight extinction risks without realistically considering the circumstances.
Here are some (rare) examples of when combating extinction might be a mistake:
- If a species cannot be rescued from extinction.
- due to climate mismatching symbiotic partnerships
- due to obligate dependence on another species which has gone extinct
- due to having no males or females left1
- If a species is on the verge of extinction and climate change is only going to get worse for them.
- such as the escalator effect
- alpine plants on the tops of mountains
- and acidification for corals
- If it is a form, variant, or overly-split-subspecies that will inevitably re-integrate with the wider species population. 1
- a discussion of when subspecies designations help or harm conservation
- an example of a an owl that “went extinct” by merging with another population
- If a species is going extinct in the wild, but thriving in captivity.
- Conserving known populations without first surveying for the existence of others.
- If species is diminishing locally, but thriving elsewhere. So-called “locally extinct,” which is a terrible misnomer.
- If a species can only be saved from extinction by expending enough resources to save thousands of others.
- If conserving a species prevents conserving other species.
Most of the time it is unknown whether these conditions apply, which is why we continue to conserve species against incredible odds - because there is still hope. There are some stunning stories of recovery. I want to write a whole post just on this subject, but for now here are some examples of recovery.
With the size of the extinction crisis we are dealing with, it is important to triage. We have to divert resources to places where they will save the most lives, rather than let them flow continuously into a project which depends more on luck than resources.
Occasionally it becomes obvious that is is one of these unfortunate situations and yet we still continue to fight a battle that has already been lost. It is tragic to let a species go extinct, but it is even more tragic when those resources could go towards making a difference for a species that still needs help.