Conservation triage – what is it really about?

Triage has received a lot of media attention in the last year or so, with conservation triage in particular being compared to resigning “the living dead” to extinction.The debate which has been going on in the global conservation community, though important, has caused a somewhat un-necessary divide in the public eye. In a world where research funding is scarce, if scientists are perceived to be unecessarily squabbling, we will not achieve our common purpose: conservation.

Would you save a Velvet worm, a polar bear, or both?


So what is triage?

“Triage” comes from the french term “trier”, which means “to sort”. Triage was initially used in medicine, particularly in war situations to allocate patients into different groups: those likely to recover without treatment, those likely to recover from immediate medical treatment, those not likely to recover at all from treatment. It was and still is a way of ensuring as many people as possible are saved with scarce resources, particularly under crisis situations, such as war.

How is triage used in conservation?

We are currently witnessing the world’s sixth mass extinction: Biodiversity is in crisis. We therefore need to make tough decisions about what to conserve given limited funding. Do we save the cute species, or do we save the one most likely to successfully be conserved with the few bucks we have? Basically, conservation triage is about getting the biggest bang for our buck, by taking account of conservation cost, the benefit of saving that species and the feasibility of conserving it. For a very good review, you can read this paper.

Why are some people so against conservation triage?

Many conservation scientists feel that every species has an intrinsic right to exist, and that by making tough decisions we are undermining that right. In fact there is a very interesting article that just came out in conservation biology about incorporating intrinsic value in analyses. But in summary, it’s tough to make tough decisions, and no one wants to have to make them.

Some misconceptions about conservation triage

1 – “We should be thinking about ecosystems, not species

Optimisation methods are being improved every day, and methods which account for dependencies between species and spatial connectivity exist and are being improved as we speak. Check out this paper for instance

2 – “By not making any choices, we are not committing anything to extinction”

Not making a decision, is resigning everything to extinction. By leaving things be, conservation is being driven by cuteness, not by how important a role the species plays in the ecosystem, or by how feasible it’s conservation actually is. With such scarce resources, it’s equivalent to throwing precious money out the window. Though flagship species are playing an important role in conserving ecosystems, a holistic approach remains important.

3 – “conservation triage suggests that saving endangered species is futile”

This is not the aim for triage, the aim of triage is to save the species with the highest probability of succes. Because a species is endangered, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a high probability of successful conservation. Red more on the subject here.

3 – “Conservertion triage is defeatist

Conservationt triage is viewed as being about choosing what we will let die, when at the core, conservation triage is actually about saving as much as possible given the small amount of money we have available.

Would you save the Arroyo toad or the black rhino, or both?

Arroyo-toad-camouflaged-against-pebbles Eastern-black-rhinoceros-four-years-old

Ultimately, if we want to avoid conservation triage, we need more money spent on conservation

This very cool paper showed that if Australia spent 4 hours of it’s defence spending ($10 million) on conservation, it would be possible to save all of Australia’s bird species from extinction over 80 years.

So get out there and campaign for conservation folks, whatever your opinion on conservation triage might be…


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