Thursday, July 13, 2006

Should we protect every species equally?

Seed's question this week is a good one:

Is every species of living thing on the planet equally deserving of protection?
Evolgen sez no:
Designing a conservation program around a single species (or any taxon) is misguided. We should be conserving habitats and ecosystems, not species or populations.
Which I generally think is true. I've argued that we need an endangered ecosystems act, and I still think so.

But it isn't true that we don't need single species protection. Most species are specifically endangered by habitat destruction, but rhinos and other species are in danger principally because that single species is being hunted. A century ago, fashionable hats called for egret feathers, and egrets were endangered even though their habitat was fine. Preserving the habitat wasn't enough, the individual species needed protection.

Should they all have equal protection? Probably not. There are plenty of reasons why we might provide more protections for humans than for the small pox virus. And similar arguments can be advanced for defending highly sentient species like cetaceans while worrying less about individual members of a particular radiation of mosquitoes.

I would say that there's probably some sort of minimum protection that we ought to accord species. If it becomes dangerous to human life, that protection might be waived (see small pox for an example), but by default, we should consider it unacceptable to push unique species or genetic lineages to extinction.

Protecting habitats and ecosystems is one way of guaranteeing such protection. So is protection for individual economically valuable species. So are captive breeding programs. And which sort of protection each species needs will depend on its own situation. It may not be equal, but it should be equitable.