Who should we be saving?

As part of the Conservation Science Mid-Term Conference, Peter Foster introduced the class to the concept of conservation triage in his talk “Conservation Triage: Admission of failure or just smart science?”.

Currently, our world is facing the potential extinction of over one third of its biodiversity according to the IUCN[1]. However, it has been acknowledged that there may not be enough resources available to save all endangered and threatened species [2,3].

In the 1980s it was suggested that the concept of triaging could be applied to this crisis [4,5,6]. The word triage usually refers to prioritizing the care of the most grievously wounded individual in a crisis situation where limited resources are available [7]. In the case of conservation, this would require a set of criteria to define priority species to for resource allocation. There are concerns, though, that this approach means intentionally allowing the extinction of some species [8]. However, this approach is still concerned with saving as many species as possible but advocates doing so by focusing first on where the most good can be done [9].

The prioritization of some species or areas over others is already inadvertently a part of many conservation initiatives and programs. A former vice president of the Defenders of Wildlife organization, has commented that American conservation funds tend to be preferentially devoted to charismatic species[10]. The Alliance for Zero Extinction, while claiming to believe the triage approach is unnecessarily defeatist [11], have created a list of 588 priority conservation sites [12].

There have been several proposed methods create a prioritization of endangered and threatened species. Bottrill et al., suggested the idea of weighing a species value, biodiversity benefit, and probability of successful recovery against the cost of saving the species [13]. The London Zoological Society proposes saving “Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered species.” [14]. This would prioritize species who had few closely related species in existence along with the species threat level [15]. This is the approach our speaker favours and ended his talk by saying he “believed in saving the weird and wonderful.”

fox 1

A Chinese giant salamander, one of the endangered species with few close relatives that the speaker advocated saving. 

By Emma Fox



  1. IUCN (2010). IUCN – Why is biodiversity in crisis?. Retrieved 20 October 2015, from http://www.iucn.org/iyb/about/biodiversity_crisis/
  2. James, A., Gaston, K. J., & Balmford, A. (2001). Can we afford to conserve biodiversity?. BioScience, 51(1), 43-52.
  3. Balmford, A., Gaston, K. J., Blyth, S., James, A., & Kapos, V. (2003). Global variation in terrestrial conservation costs, conservation benefits, and unmet conservation needs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100(3), 1046-1050
  4. Conway, W. G. (1980). Where we go from here. International Zoo Yearbook,20(1), 184- 189.
  5. Stone, C. P., & Scott, J. M. (1984). Hawaii’s terrestrial ecosystems: Preservation and management. In Proceedings of a symposium held June (pp. 5-6).
  6. Brennan, E. J. (1985). De Brazza’s monkeys (Cercopithecus neglectus) in Kenya: census, distribution, and conservation. American Journal of Primatology, 8(4), 269-277.
  7. Blagg, C. R. (2004). Triage: Napoleon to the present day. Journal of nephrology, 17, 629- 632.
  8. Jachowski, D. S., & Kesler, D. C. (2009). Allowing extinction: should we let species go?. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 105, 2919- 2922.
  9. Bottrill, M. C., Joseph, L. N., Carwardine, J., Bode, M., Cook, C., Game, E. T., & Possingham, H. P. (2009). Finite conservation funds mean triage is unavoidable. Update, 24(4).
  10. Nijhuis, M. (2012). Which species will live?. Scientific American, 307(2), 74-79.
  11. Parr, M. J., Bennun, L., Boucher, T., Brooks, T., Chutas, C. A., Dinerstein, E., & Molur, S. (2009). Why we should aim for zero extinction. Update, 24(4)
  12. Zero Extinction Alliance (ZEA). (2015). OVERVIEW. Retrieved 23 October 2015, from http://www.zeroextinction.org/overviewofaze.htm
  13. Bottrill, M. C., Joseph, L. N., Carwardine, J., Bode, M., Cook, C., Game, E. T., & Possingham, H. P. (2008). Is conservation triage just smart decision making?. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 23(12), 649-654.
  14. EDGE of Existence. (2015). EDGE of Existence. Retrieved 23 October 2015, from http://www.edgeofexistence.org/
  15. Isaac, N. J., Turvey, S. T., Collen, B., Waterman, C., & Baillie, J. E. (2007). Mammals on the EDGE: conservation priorities based on threat and phylogeny.PLoS One, 2(3), e296

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