News / Policy

Conservation Triage: Learning to Let Go

I want to apologize in advance for what may seem like a disheartening post. I didn’t mean to, but I started writing about an issue I’ve always wondered about, and it sort of just happened. I promise my next post will be so uplifting, you’ll feel like standing up and dancing like this miniature poodle.


Also, I know this is technically a marine sciences blog, but this post is primarily inspired by rhinoceroses (rhinoceri?). Breaking all the rules, I know. Why rhinoceroses you ask? Well the simple explanation is because they’re awesome. Fun fact: For five hundred years, a skull of the extinct woolly rhinoceros, close relative of modern rhinoceros species, was thought to have belonged to the slain Lindwurm dragon of Klagenfurt, Austria. Not many animals could be mistaken for a dragon for half a millennium. But I digress. The real reason is because this is a species that symbolizes a sort of catch-22 in wildlife conservation.

Just this week, social media has generated a buzz around the released photos of a 24-hour armed guard protecting the planet’s last remaining male of the critically endangered northern white rhinoceros (see below). No that picture is not staged. Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya is employing a team of forty park rangers to follow this poor guy around the clock making sure that poachers don’t take his life. They even cut off his horn for “added precaution”! I mean, can you imagine being the last of your species bumping around the African savanna with an entourage of these strange primate creatures trailing behind – the same creatures responsible for decimating your population in the first place?

Armed guard, Ol Pejeta Conservancy

But my point is this. While for the most part we can all agree on the tragic nature of this situation, can we honestly justify this amount of resources being invested into the protection of a subspecies that is already functionally extinct? In other words, even if this last male is able to reproduce successfully once or twice before he dies, the population will not be able to sustain itself under the level of inbreeding that would be required. So why then do we protect it? I imagine because we feel bad. Even as I write this post, I’m fighting through an internal struggle between my moral brain, which is saying “we created this disaster, so we need to fix it”, and my logical brain, which is telling me to just let it go.

And this is the unfortunate predicament of many conservation initiatives. In some instances, certain species will be unable to withstand the level of human impact on the planet today, whether that occurs directly through hunting/poaching or indirectly such as through climatic changes. In fact, a recent study estimates that approximately 20-25% of all species on the planet are at risk of extinction. At this type of scale, we don’t have nearly enough resources to protect every one of these species in the same way we protect this rhinoceros.


This puts wildlife managers in a tough situation where they are forced to perform conservation triage. Species that are most critically endangered (and those with popular appeal) are often prioritized over less charismatic species that are at lower risk of extinction. Managers are doing the best they can, but with extremely limited resources, it is not possible to save every species on the planet from extinction. So while it hurts my heart just as much as it hurts yours to witness the end of the northern white rhinoceros, I think that in this instance my logical brain has a stronger case. Wouldn’t it be more ecologically effective in the grander scheme of conservation to scale back these rhino rangers and use the funds and manpower to proactively prevent this situation from happening to other species within the Conservancy?


I imagine this question weighs on the minds of many of the hardworking wildlife managers in the field, including those of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, and I continue to struggle with the answer myself.

I’d like to point out that Kathleen wrote about a similar story earlier this year (with a way better outlook of course) regarding a memorial to Lonesome George. Ol’ George was the last remaining Pinta Island tortoise that faced a similar situation to the northern white rhinoceros until he perished in 2012. Check it out here.

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