A House on Fire: Are We Saving the Right Species?

A giraffe weevil (Trachelophorus giraffa) native to Madagascar.

A giraffe weevil (Trachelophorus giraffa) native to Madagascar.

As the world’s nations hash out a plan for curbing the extinction crisis at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) this week, we asked some of CI’s top scientists to reflect on their careers and what biodiversity means to them. Dr. Leo Braack—director of CI’s Southern Africa Wilderness Programme—had a unique perspective on the subject, and he shares his thoughts, below. Read the other blogs in this series.

Scientists estimate that the number of species on Earth ranges from five million to 100 million. Uncertainty is greatest among the diminutive organisms—insects and smaller, where the real diversity lies. As a result, there are still new species being discovered, even among exceptionally well-studied groups like mammals and birds, so the reality is that we will probably never get to the ultimate answer for this question—but it is the nature of humans to want to know these kinds of details.

What we do know is that species are going extinct at an ever-increasing pace, mainly because of human-induced habitat fragmentation and transformation. And the rate at which species are going extinct is without any doubt going to increase, given our human propensity for sticking our heads in the ground and continuing with the habits that give rise to that destruction in the first place. Window dressing like recycling our garbage or buying a smaller car may salve our conscience, but won’t do much to stop the massive extinction that is already gathering steam. In a modern world where human populations continue to grow and people live longer lives, demand for food and land will increase. We are on a treadmill that will not stop for a few more decades, and a lot of species will go extinct in that time.

This reality confronts conservationists with an interesting dilemma: We simply do not have the political support and resources to make incisive, fundamental changes of a scale sufficient to turn the tide in the short term. So, if species are going to go extinct at a rate which we haven’t even begun to conceptualize—much less ponder the consequences—then what is the best way for conservationists to apply the limited resources they have to achieve maximum return on investment?

The answer some conservation organizations will give you is, “We have to ensure that no species go extinct at all.” For those organizations, the battle is already lost—reality has overtaken them and valuable time is being frittered away. I believe it’s time to quit the hand-wringing about the one or two species of beautiful and rare birds that are threatened on one isolated mountaintop, or a species of fish that is known only from one pond surrounded by an advancing sea of agricultural demands, and get on with saving what is really under threat.

So ask yourself: “If my house were on fire, what would I rush in to save?” I suspect you would not say the pleasure-giving television, but rather the heirloom jewelry you have stashed away unseen in your bedroom safe. If you were forced to choose, perhaps you wouldn’t save that beautiful painting hanging on the wall, but rather the worn-out file containing photos and old letters and documents of your children’s earlier years from the wall cupboard.

But here’s the rub. In biology, we don’t really know what is important, and so we stand in indecision while Rome is burning. Our values about wildlife are a complex mix of subjective and personal values. If asked which species we should conserve, most people would choose charismatic species, not necessarily those that have real value in terms of what they contribute to sustaining the ecosystems which are pivotal to the survival of many other species—including people.

Leo Braack

Leo Braack

We need to get better at deciding where we want to focus our scarce resources. Do we want to continue trying to save each and every species on the planet—which would be nice but which is impossible? Do we want to target those species we know have very localized distributions and are highly threatened—and in that way knowingly focus on species which in most cases are doomed anyway? Or should we go for maximum return and pour our resources into protecting the greatest mix of species across the largest areas still available—whether they contain elephants or rhinos or gorillas or not—because the valuable species that really count may be tiny and nondescript?

Tell you what—if the ship is sinking, grab the plastic lifejacket, not the expensive Gucci coat.

Dr. Leo Braack is the director of CI’s Southern Africa Wilderness Programme.


  1. Evan says

    What if there is nowhere else to go, and we have no choice but to remain in the house? The resilience of some species will guarantee their survival, with no regard to our preference. Seems as though we must either: 1) quarantine some rooms from the fire, or 2) accept a harsher overall environment and let natural selection run its course. And believe me, neither is my preference–I wish the earth was becoming MORE diverse, not less.

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