Should we try to save every species?

I woke up yesterday morning to find my Twitter feed full of news about the new list of 100 most endangered species that ZSL and IUCN have produced for a document called ‘Priceless or worthless.’ In it Jonathon Baillie and others argue that all biodiversity on earth has an intrinsic value. In this and in a radio interview on the Today programme yesterday Baillie said he thinks we should try to preserve all species in existence.

Say what you like, but I don’t agree.

I think ZSL and IUCN are being slightly disingenuous when they claim that they aim to preserve all species on earth. This is an impossible task. And they know it.

Any type of human development, let alone the unprecedented destruction of the biosphere that is currently going on, almost definitely endangers some species somewhere. There are countless examples from the 1500s on of settlers causing the extinction of species all over the place, as a result of relatively low-impact activities – at least by today’s standards. Even if we all embraced clean energy and reduced consumption to a minimum overnight we would still drive species to extinction by altering ecosystems to meet our own needs.

Given that we can’t, and won’t, save all species what should we do?

The answer really depends on what you think we should preserve and why you think we should try to preserve it.

I am of the opinion that we should:

  1. Be pragmatic and target our efforts on particular species that we think we can save and factor in the costs of doing this. We should target the most cost-effective options as a priority. Ignoring costs of conservation is idiocy. Even if it seems a little hard-hearted factoring in costs is vital, just ask Hugh Possingham.
  2. View ecosystems as the unit of conservation and push the development of the ecosystem red-list as a means of international prioritisation. This doesn’t preclude the use of flagship species or even species specific conservation in some cases but in general we should be trying to maintain unique ecosystems and the interactions within them.
  3. Be explicit about what our values are. People need ecosystem services to live and pretending otherwise is fantasy. On the other hand completely ignoring the beauty of nature dehumanises us. We need to find a middle way where cultural services are valued as well as those that are vital to life. The two approaches need not be mutually exclusive.

These are not the only answers, or even the best ones, but they are important and should be addressed. I fear that by aiming to save everything we will waste valuable resources and will ultimately fail to protect much. Even if we can change people’s current attitudes and raise more money for biodiversity conservation we will have to make hard choices. We should at least admit it.