Extinction is good

Posted on November 30, 2011

IUCN, Geneva

IUCN, Geneva

According to a recent poll of 583 conservationists, 60% agreed that criteria should be established for deciding which species to abandon to extinction so others can be saved. Murray Rudd of the University of York in the UK, who ran the survey, says that the topic has been taboo until recently.

According to Rudd, most large conservation organisations already have such criteria as checklists for prioritising their efforts to save species. Jean-Christophe Vie of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, in Geneva, Switzerland agrees that species will inevitably be lost despite our best efforts and agrees that prioritisation is important for conservation work.

“But there will be disagreement about priorities,” he says. “We can’t save all 17,000 species under threat, so we must choose and that depends on many parameters.”

English: Red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) on a ...

Red Squirrel

Making such a choice given that as a result of what is decided we will see species lost forever will be difficult and will inevitably result in arguments. An example of such a conflict that may be near to the hearts of the British population could be the issue of the threatened red squirrel, already driven to the edge of extinction by the growing spread of the grey squirrel further and further into the remaining areas where the red still maintains a foothold. It is hard to imagine the British people choosing to ignore the plight of the red squirrel and accepting its extinction.

Similarly, but less extreme, the American white crayfish is spreading in the British rivers and threatening the native British breeds, this time not by direct comptetion but by the medium of a disease carried by the more recent American invaders. In both cases, efforts are being made at considerable cost and difficulty to maintian the native British breeds and stave off the spread of the invasive species. Designing a checklist of priorities that can deal with such issues will be difficult in the extreme and will need to cater for island issues such as we see in Britiain in these two cases.

Rudd acknowledges that such a choice will not be straightforward. As he puts it: “Should it be how unique a species is genetically, how useful it is economically, or whether lots of species can be saved at once?”

Clearly, this will be a difficult and contentious issue among conservationists. Firstly, should such prioritisation be carried out at all, then what the basis for the priorities should be and finally how do they deal with much-loved species under threat in the way the red squirrel is in the United Kingdom. There is no doubt we shall hear more of this over the months and years to come.