Conservation triage: clarity or confusion?


What do you see when we talk about triage? A spreadsheet or a corpse?

Triage is one of the most contentious topics in conservation science. It asks the questions: Which species should we save? Which species should we abandon? Or maybe it doesn’t. That depends on who you talk to. When we talk about triage, we talk about different things.

Triage in action

The classic image of triage – an image conservation scientists like to use – is from the First World War. A photo of wounded and dying soldiers, and the surgeons who decided who would be treated first and last; who would live and who would die. Hell on Earth.

In a less apocalyptic manner, triage survives today in the emergency hospital ward, where staff decide the order in which patients will be treated.

The battlefield view of triage can be interpreted in different ways. Some people see triage as a process. Others see triage as a process tied to an explicit outcome. Others see both, inconsistently.

Triage as a process

Conservation scientists who advocate triage usually present it as a process: Triage is “just smart decision making” or “the efficient allocation of conservation resources.” From this perspective, triage is just another word for prioritisation, resource allocation, optimisation, micro-economics or “getting the best bang for our buck”.

We use prioritisation schemes to select networks of conservation reserves; to work out efficient ways to search for rare species; to decide where and when to control weeds and feral animals. Few people complain about these valuable activities.

In this world view, triage is a process: an algorithm compiled by a methodical analyst.

Triage as an outcome

In the wider world, triage is often taken to mean more than just a process. Triage invokes an explicit outcome. In this world view, triage is the act of deciding who to save and who to give up on – how many soldiers and species we agree to abandon.

The underlying intentions may be noble but they need not be. An army surgeon, like a conservation scientist, hopes to save as many lives as possible. But triage in popular culture is often devoid of due process or greater good. In the movies, triage is Sophie’s Choice: “You have two children, one of whom must die. Who will you choose to save?”

In this world view, the outcome – choosing who or how many to abandon is an integral part of triage. It is not an optional extra.

War time images of triage are interpreted in different ways. The interpretation in this caption includes a process and an outcome: choosing who will be left to die. Source: Chans Lab Views.

More triage makes less triage

Conservation triage is more confusing than this. There are conservation scientists who reject species triage and scientists who reject triage while supporting prioritisation schemes. Some researchers say triage has nothing to do with abandoning species, while others say the opposite.

Some conservation researchers use triage to refer to all types of prioritisation schemes, including reserve selection, weed detection and more. To extend the medical analogy, this is like calling all planning and management in the public health system, triage. If better planning and management can prevent deaths in the emergency ward, then we need more triage (planning) to get less triage (emergencies). Confused?

Triage as politics

And yet another viewpoint sees triage as an act of politics rather than science. In this view, governments do triage when they decide how much money to grant to conservation. For every prioritised list of endangered species, the line that divides the saved from the damned is ruled by a politically inspired budget, not by researchers. Triage is the political act of deciding how far down the list that line is drawn.

Due process and the greater good are not prominent in political triage, as Sophie’s Choice demonstrated. Alongside a more common definition, the Collins Dictionary captures a cynical, political interpretation of triage: “the principle or practice of allocating limited resources… on a basis of expediency rather than according to moral principles or the needs of the recipients”.

Triage as cultural baggage

Triage means many things to different people, which is not at all surprising. It is impossible to appropriate a word of deep historical and cultural significance – especially one imbued with power, mortality, fatalism and tragedy – and imagine it carries no baggage.

This baggage makes it futile to debate the merits of conservation triage unless we first accept that triage means a lot of different things. We cannot make all the other interpretations go away.

When conservation scientists use the term triage in public, instead of calling our work prioritisation or just smart decision making, we sow confusion rather than clarity.

We risk tainting good prioritisation schemes with poor word choices. We risk taking the rap for political expediency. We risk giving a minister the right to exclaim: “I did what the experts said.” We risk alienating those who see triage as an act of cynicism or abandonment.

Ambiguous words laden with cultural baggage make for appalling communication. We need to sow clarity not confusion. There is no clarity in triage. We need to make better word choices.

This post was originally hosted on Manu Saunders’ fantastic blog site, Ecology is Not a Dirty Word. You can read the original version here.