I read an interesting article on New Scientist the other day: Conservation and compassion – first do no harm. It highlighted the ethical dilemma of saving a species (in this case the black-footed ferret) by breeding them in captivity and then teaching them how to hunt by feeding them live golden hamsters and black-tailed prairie dogs. Many thousands of these small mammals are used as ‘learning prey’ every year to keep the wild population of black-footed ferrets healthy.
While the New Scientist-article mainly focused on the ethical aspect of this procedure (which to be fair isn’t all that different from breeding cattle for slaughter), I just found it astonishing how much effort was being spent on saving a single species. I’m not an anti-conservationist, but I really don’t see how focusing our energy on single species will stop or even slow down the current mass extinction. It’s just isn’t a viable way of spending our limited resources.
Imagine if you will a vast library, containing millions upon millions of unique books each filled with huge amounts of information and facts. Now imagine that there is a fire raging, and several sections of the library is already fully ablaze.
Assuming that we want to save as much information as possible, what should we do? We don’t have enough water to extinguish the fire completely, and we don’t have the time and resources to move the books to safety. We could go through the books one by one to determine which ones are most worth saving, but meanwhile most of the library would go up in smoke. Or we could focus on saving the few books we know anything about, or the ones we like the look of, judging them by their covers.
The sad truth is that whatever we do, a huge number of books will be lost forever, but to save as big a selection of books as possible we need to employ methods used in fighting wildfires. By creating fireroads, we could isolate sections of the library and hopefully save all the books in that area. We could then manage each section separately and suppress any new fires starting up.
It should be fairly obvious by now that the library symbolise nature and the books represent individual species. And that focusing our efforts on saving individual species is fruitless. Rather, we need to make sure we can save as many whole ecosystems as possible, which in turn would help preserve the species making up those ecosystems.
Our planet consists of a vast network of interacting and overlapping webs of life, and our only hope to preserve even a fraction of the current biodiversity is to treat the whole system holistically. Even if that means letting some species go extinct.