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Ecological Triage is Unavoidable and Nothing New for Conservationists

“Is it fair for certain species that are not saveable in the long term to get the most money? I would say no.” -Paul Goldstein in a BBC interview Ecological conservation has perhaps always been a losing battle. With the news of actual or impending extinction becoming a part of daily life, many scientists, conservationists, [...]

Giant Panda
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“Is it fair for certain species that are not saveable in the long term to get the most money? I would say no.” -Paul Goldstein in a BBC interview

Ecological conservation has perhaps always been a losing battle. With the news of actual or impending extinction becoming a part of daily life, many scientists, conservationists, and environmental activists seem to be realizing that they are being stomped, that they are being carried way in the global tide of development and ecological destruction, that new methods may be needed to regroup, restrategize, and refine the struggle against species loss and habitat destruction worldwide. Ecological triage is one model that has been proposed for doing that.

What is ecological triage?

Ecological triage is a spin off of emergency room or battle field triage where people in need of medical assistance are prioritized based on the severity of their injuries and the possibility of a successful outcome in relation to what medical resources are available. In point, someone who is severely injured will receive medical care before someone who does not have a life threatening ailment, while someone with their head blown off will not be given resources that could otherwise be put towards someone whose life could be saved.

Sumatra Tiger

In terms of applying this triage methodology to the conservation/ ecological setting, species will be prioritize for conservation efforts in regards to how much they need them, the perceived importance of their ecological role, and the likelihood of a successful outcome. Species that are ecologically redundant (i.e. have their heads blown off) will likewise not be directly allocated with the resources that could otherwise be applied to a species that has a chance of survival or put towards preserving an ecosystem as a whole.

Ecological triage is a system for evaluating what resources conservationists have available and allocating them in a direction that has the highest probability of a successful outcome.

As put by Corey Bradshaw:

“Ecological triage refers to the the conservation prioritisation of species that provide unique or necessary functions to ecosystems, and the abandonment of those that do not have unique ecosystem roles or that face almost certain extinction . . . Financial resources such as investment in recovery programmes, purchase of remaining habitats for preservation, habitat restoration, etc. are allocated accordingly; the species that contribute the most to ecosystem function and have the highest probability of persisting are earmarked for conservation and others are left to their own devices (Hobbs & Kristjanson 2003).” –Ecological Triage

In a survey conducted by Dr Murray Rudd of the University of York where 600 conservation scientists were asked whether they felt that a criteria for triage decisions should be established nearly 60% responded in the affirmative.

Ecological triage in practice

All conservation organizations apply triage on some level. Where there is a finite amount of conservation funding, its allocation is going to be directed to where it is needed most or where it would be most beneficial. On this level, whether or not to implement triage is a moot point: it is already being practiced, always has been practiced, and will continue to be practiced.

In a recent scientific paper published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution entitled Finite Conservation Funds Mean Triage is Unavoidable, the authors assert that, “In practice, all conservation managers and agencies allocate limited budgets to specific actions in the knowledge that there will be habitats and species that receive no, or less, investment and that these might degrade or become extinct owing to the choices made.”

This current discussion on ecological triage seems to be more about drawing up the foundations for a collective approach towards triage rather than allowing a laissez-faire pattern to continue. For example: is it prudent to pump millions and millions of dollars into conserving a species like the panda when other, perhaps more vital, elements of its ecosystem are in need of conservation first?

The paper continues, “. . . triage is not about abandoning difficult-to-save species, but rather about prioritizing actions given finite resources.”

In point, conservation triage does not directly mean ditching out on assisting certain species in favor of preserving others — this is not a separating the wheat from the chaff endeavor — it just means making wiser decisions in the allocation of conservation funding to best preserve and care for as much of a given ecosystem as possible.

If you preserve the panda’s ecosystem, you are working towards preserving the panda. Rarely, or so it is my impression, can a singular species be removed from the ecosystem in which it lives in terms of conservation.

“If you want to save everything then you have to do it boldly and get to the root of the problem of creatures being endangered,” commented wildlife guide Paul Goldstein in a BBC interview.

Diane Walkington, the WWF UK Head of Species, who in the same story was suppose to present a contrary view stated that, “[with ecological triage] you may end up with a model not dissimilar to that being used today, because conserving tigers and pandas equates to a push to preserve their habitats, and by extension all of the other species that share their home.”

The only way to save a species in the wild is to save the ecosystem in which it lives. Without a healthy and thriving habitat many endangered species are going to be on perpetual life support. With a suitable habitat there is the hope that endangered species may rebound on their own volition. As Goldstein proposed above, fighting the root of what is causing extinction would be a more successful method than trying to fight a small handful of its branches.

No species acts independently in the wild, and the current conservation model of pumping funds into saving a small handful of animals is a moot point if the ecosystems in which these species live are ravaged. Triage, in this instance, or so it is my impression, means prioritizing the prime threats to a species’ habitat and fighting them in due order. It is money wasted to conserve the panda when it doesn’t have a proper habitat to live it. If you conserve an ecosystem you help to conserve ALL the species that live there, rather than just one or two popular animals. Without a holistic approach to ecosystem conservation there is little chance of the successful rehabilitation of any singular species.

It is my impression that both sides of the triage debate are actually on the same page in this regard — that you must get to the root of the problem of extinction to have any real impact — but how to go about doing this within the bounds of very real funding restrictions is the question.

Ecological triage is one methodology that has been proposed.

The conservation triage hype

“Should we give up trying to save the panda?”

“Is it time to give up on tigers and pandas?”

These were two headlines run on BBC news and in the Independent earlier this month about the results of Dr Rudd’s survey. These articles seemed to intentionally omit a large portion of what ecological triage is in exchange for focusing on one aspect of it that would surly cause a public sensation — the business of mass media.

These news items presented ecological triage with overt simplicity, posing it as scientist choosing one species to save while wantonly leaving others for extinction. While this may be an inherent byproduct of triage in selected cases, it is my impression that this is not the intent of the system. All ecological triage means is establishing a criteria for putting conservation funding where it is needed most and will have the highest benefit for global ecosystems as a whole. These articles made a claim that popular species for conservation — like the panda and tiger — would not make the “triage lists,” and be left for doom. In actuality, all triage would mean in these cases is re-distributing some of the millions of dollars allocated solely for the rehabilitation of big ticket species towards other conservation projects that would do the most good for their total ecosystem.

These articles published in the BBC and the Independent were successful in their mission — they brought thousands of angry tiger and panda loving readers onto their pages — but they did little to educate the public about the entire scope of what conservation triage actually is.

The potential benefits of the ecological triage discussion

All conservation triage means is developing a broad prioritization system for allocating conservation funding. In actuality, conservation triage has always been in effect, and always will be — there is no way to avoid it. By pumping millions into saving the panda or tiger or other big ticket species, other elements of the global ecosystems are being “selected out” and left on their own to face impending extinction. The only change that conservation triage as systematic initiative would mean is that scientists and other conservation professionals — rather than the general public, governments, or NGOs that inherently favor some species at the expense of others — would devise a system for the allocation of limited conservation funding.

The debate here is not between employing ecological triage or not, but whether a re-evaluation of current triage methods is needed. 

If this recent ecological triage discussion amounts to anything more than a petty media buzz some benefit may come of it. It is my impression that ecological triage as a broad initiative would mean a massive coordination of scientists and conservation organizations working towards a singular goal: the realistic preservation of the world’s ecosystems and the development of a criteria to best do this given the availability of resouces. In a sphere where such organizations and research bodies are more or less splintered, working independently, or, in some cases, competing with each other such cohesion may be necessary step to better face a future where the rate of extinction is 10 to 100 times higher than the geologic norm.

*The terms conservation triage and ecological triage are used  interchangeably in this article.

Filed under: Conservation, Environment, Essays, Wildlife

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3703 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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