Backing into Eden Chapter 8 – Do we save the whales or the mud snails?

I wake up for coffee and the New York Times, enjoying both in the still crack of morning when the birds greet the day with soft songs. On one such morning in the spring of last year, I was still deciding whether or not to steal valuable time from my fiction career to do this work.  An article in the Times helped to convince me.  It was entitled “To save some species, zoos must let others die.”

Flower in the CascadesI thought about that article for days.  It’s obviously still with me – I found it again and linked to it below.  I encourage you to read it, and to think about it.

Early on in this series, I talked about the anthropocene extinction, which is the casual destruction of entire species of plants and animals by a single species (us). Ecocide.

Most of us aren’t even noticing.

Here are a few recently-extinct species: The Formosan clouded leopard, the eastern cougar, the western black rhinoceros.  The Japanese river otter.  The Pinta Island tortoise.

I didn’t notice any of those specifically until I looked them up.  But that doesn’t mean they don’t matter.

In the last chapter we talked about land use planning with an eye to the preservation of the critical resources we need to live.  There have been many successes, but we need more, and on a grander scale.

Typically, humans plan when there is a goal, and at least some risk of shortage along the way to achieving that goal.  This shortage can be will, time, resources, or raw materials.  In this case, we’re short of all of those.  That means we’re going to have to plan carefully, monitor, and make choices.

Zoos are making these choices by deciding which radically endangered species to breed and care for.  Even as they twist some of their mission to conservation, and communicate with each other all over the globe, there aren’t enough resources in all of the zoos in all of the world to save all of the animals.

They know this.  Many zoos have banded together to create what is called the Frozen Ark.  Re-usable DNA and cell samples are probably going to be critical to increase diversity in animals we are trying to save in the wild, or to restore animals after they become extinct.

But it’s even more important to do what we can to preserve biodiversity now and soon.

That’s still about making choices.  Can we save all of the whales?  Or will we need to abandon some populations of specific whales, or even whole types?  The problem is complex.  For example, scientists in the Pacific Northwest are studying the decline of killer whales in the area.  There are a lot of pressures on these beautiful beasts, and one of them may be lack of food.  The salmon they prefer are also threatened.  If we save the salmon, we might accidentally also save the whales.  If we save the whales from whale-watching boats and ocean acidification but don’t save the salmon, the whales may die anyway.

The news is not all bad.  Species are being removed from lists as well as added.  Sometimes we declare a plant or animal extinct and then find we were wrong.  We are doing a good job of protecting some habitats and of blending wild and human spaces better.  There have been increases in bald eagles, whooping cranes, and prairie dogs.

But the trend is still – strongly – to the negative.  The great work that has been done so far isn’t enough to get us out of having to make choices.

Thankfully, we probably don’t have to directly decide to kill any species.  But we may have to kill individuals of one species to save another whole species.  We do this when we weed, and when we remove non-native species to restore ecosystems to native form.  Recently, forest managers chose to kill invasive barred owls to save spotted owls in the Northwest forests.

Notice that the ethics get a little harder and a lot more complex as we move from plants to animals.  I would find it nearly impossible to shoot a barred owl to save a spotted owl.

Most of our choices have been focused on one species at a time. They have been from the heart.  Actively choosing how to spread a thin layer of money, attention, and labor across a thick layer of endangered species will be harder.

We can’t leave it all up to zoos.

We do have tools to help.  We have detailed mapping, the ability to track many kinds of animals well, and big data tools to help us grasp problems and opportunities.

We don’t yet understand all of the interdependencies such as salmon and whales (and for the salmon, storm-water management on-shore, the day-lighting of streams, and more).  The knowledge we need is growing fast, and there’s enough of it to act now. While we’re funding the science we need, it’s time to keep executing the work we’re pretty sure tilts the balance the right way (setting aside land to protect ecosystems, managing development new population ends up in the cities, de-toxifying as much as possible, managing carbon and climate change).  Maybe most important, we have to keep educating.  Projects with bad communication often fail.  We need to keep up the pressure of knowledge that forces us to act.  To notice to species we are losing and use their passing to illustrate how important it is to save what we can.

We can’t save all of the animals.  It probably wouldn’t even be smart to try. Extinction is a variable in the evolution equation.  The problem isn’t extinction per se, it’s the speed and stupidity and scale of the anthropocene extinction event that we need to turn around.  Success will be one of our defining moments as a species.  Failure, of course, means increasing our own risk of joining the extinction.

The idea of making conscious choices about what to save is profoundly disturbing and unsettling.  I believe we can save enough to thrive, to thread the needles of the near-future and come out on a side where biodiversity is growing faster than its shrinking. But this discussion skirts the edges of human hubris, and takes us perilously close to playing god when we are not that.


As usual, here are some of the links I’ve been following as I put this together:

To save some species, zoos must let other die, By LESLIE KAUFMAN Published: May 27, 2012, The new York Times:

Conservation Triage:  Say you have an ark. Which species do you save?By Michelle Nijhuis|Posted Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013, at 12:08 PM  

Saving Species:

Peak at Swoon’s Anthropocene Extinction, Brooklyn Street Art, May 2011:  (This one is because art is a powerful form of education)

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species:  and related, a pretty long list of endangered animals and plants all together – the size of the list alone is daunting:

The Frozen Ark:  Saving the DNA of endangered species:

One Endangered Species Eats Another:  Killer  Whales and Salmon,   NOAA Fisheries, January 22, 2013:

Killing one Owl Species to Save Another:  NPR, June 12, 2011:

3 thoughts on “Backing into Eden Chapter 8 – Do we save the whales or the mud snails?”

  1. Zoos primary mission is entertainment, not conservation. That’s what environmental groups and charities are created for. And the main problem isn’t that species are going extinct, something that’s happened since life first evolved on this planet, but the rate at which extinctions have increased. There’s no simple solution, since ecosystems are a delicate balance and trying to increase one species to save another could have the consequence of causing an entirely different species to go extinct. Trying to balance our expanding population with the natural resources of this planet we share with other species is a constant balancing act, and its futile to think that we know what we are doing. Many times, well intentioned acts on our part have caused more harm than good, but that doesn’t negate our obligations. In the meantime, we try to minimize our impact and do the best we can, as little as that may seem.

    Thank you for a thought provoking post.

  2. Thanks for your comments. You are echoing my thoughts quite a bit. I do think we’ll manage to thrive on the other side of this, but it’s going to be a challenge to minimize collateral damage.

  3. Pingback: Backing into Eden Chapter 11: Invasion and Migration - Brenda Cooper at Brenda Cooper

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