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October 12, 2022

What to Save?

Noah's Ark

By: Eric Miller, DVM

Based on the Wall Street Journal article “Sure, Save Endangered Species, But Which Ones?”

The vast numbers of species, plants, and animals create a rich and varied tapestry that is the Earth as we know it. However, the current rate of species’ extinctions – 1,000 times the normal rate of extinction – is damaging that tapestry and exceeds our resources to address “saving” all the disappearing species. 

Given those limitations, in her new book “Tickets for the Ark: From Wasps to Whales, How Do We Choose Which Species to Save?”, ecologist Rebecca Nesbit asks the vexing question “Which species to save?” She notes that extinction is part of the natural order of things, but as noted, the current rate vastly exceeds the background rate of extinctions. Ms. Nesbit also notes that it’s impossible to “save” all species. In addressing the current ecological crisis, she discusses how to make current conservation efforts more effective, and more importantly, offers insights in how we make our choices. 

The world moved on after the extinction of the dodo, notes Ms. Nesbit, but how many species can be lost before the ecological fabric unravels on the Earth’s services that support humanity in its present lifestyle? Examples of services not mentioned in her book, but illustrative of the value of biodiversity to us, are the current problem of the bananas we eat relying on one cultivar and wild wheat providing the genes for many rust-resistant varieties.

Extinction isn’t limited to those charismatic species most of us have heard of – black rhinoceroses, cheetahs, orangutans, etc., but also to those less charismatic and often smaller species, e.g., hellbenders many species of river mussels, American burying beetles, and many, many more. Zoos and aquariums most often focus on the former, while the environmental function of many non-charismatic species is lost. Ms. Nesbit richly illustrates that point with the example of parasitic wasps. We don’t know the number of species to the nearest 10,000, clearly illustrating “We don’t even know what we don’t know.”  Their role in ecosystem maintenance has been largely ignored, let alone any efforts made to save them. In many ways, species of plants are an even larger canvas whose overall picture we do not yet understand as species disappear even before we identify them to science.

The complexity of saving species is multifactorial. Ms. Nesbit notes that conservation must be based on science, e.g., the Zoological Society of London’s plan based on saving genetic diversity, where at its broadest, i.e., a last member of a family takes precedence over the last member of a species. But there’s much more. Philosophy and our own values accompany and influence the choices of which species receive conservation attention. She notes that “Ultimately conservation is about morality.”

Rather than mourn “Paradise Lost,” Dr. Nesbit finishes on a positive note by discussing the engagement of the younger generation and cases where changes in law have aided species survival, e.g., many species of whales are recovering due to an intentional ban.

In the end, our facilities, zoos, aquariums, and botanical gardens can be and have been lifeboats for some species, but their resources are too limited to be the proverbial Ark for all. To build that Ark will require protecting the richness of the entire ecosystems in situ. Preserving the complexity of those ecosystems requires much more than the Biblical “two by two,” and resources for the thousands of species that we can only maximize through collaboration. That’s the only way we can save the most vital threads of the rich tapestry of life that surrounds us, and not be left with a tattered rag.

Ms. Nesbit’s favorite animals are puffins, but if given one ticket to the Ark, she would give it to orangutans as she would like primates to fare well in the new world. In the end, this book raises the powerful question, if you had one ticket for the Ark, which species would you choose? Why? It’s a question we should all ask ourselves.

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