The job of an environmental conservationist/biologist is by no means easy work. In many cases, the solution to an environmental problem requires a change in policy across multiple domains: ecological, sociopolitical, economic, technological, and others. The conservation of specific endangered species doesn’t come easy either. In a perfect world, all endangered species would be saved from extinction. But our world is far from being perfect, so don’t certain choices have to be made in order to ensure that time and resources are properly allocated towards the protection of the “right” species? During Darron Collins’s presentation, the question was raised, how do biologists and conservationists decide which species get help over others?
The answer to this question, as it turns out, is never cut and dried. There is no such concept as the “right” species, just as there is no such concept as a perfect organism. All organisms have different, significant functions within an ecosystem, regardless of their perceived utility. Some could argue, and perhaps with good reason, that the preservation of keystone species should be a top priority for environmental scientists. After all, without these keystone species, many ecosystems could be severely altered or even fall apart completely. However, this way of thinking fails to take into account possibly the most important goal of species conservation: the perpetuation of diversity. Time and time again both in and out of class, we have discussed the necessity of biological diversity. All phenotypic variation we observe within organisms today is the result of genetic diversity, which is the result of environmental diversity, and so on down the line. Without diversity, there is no distinction, no change, no life as we know it on Earth.
Far too often, it would seem, humans are most concerned with the preservation of species based on appearance. Every “Save the Pandas” campaigns relies on the fact that humans perceive these bears as being cute and cuddly. While pandas are undoubtedly important to save, the hype surrounding their protection has the tendency to detract from other species that are also in desperate need of protection. One of Collins’s first experiences with endangered species conservation involved an organism that was far from cute and cuddly. The Taimen, a large species of fish in the salmon family, was the focus of Collins’s field work in the Onon River in Mongolia. What was particularly concerning about the dwindling Taimen populations was that it signified a larger environmental concern. It seemed that the Taimen, once in abundance from Hungary to Japan, had been fished out by the elite of Eastern Europe. So what did Collins and his team do? The solution was actually to allow and charge catch-and-release fishing of these fish. No matter how counterintuitive, the solution was effective in rebounding Taimen populations, and served as fuel for the Northeastern Mongolian economy.
Environmental conservationists don’t have a magic wand that they point at species that they want to save, and saving a species could never be so simple. More so, the decision of which species to help is never simple because every organism is has a unique ecological role and every organism is important in the maintenance of biological diversity. And because diversity means sustainability of life on Earth, we as its occupants have a considerable obligation to preserve it.