We all know many axioms of life and literature that warn about the consequences of "too little, too late." William Shakespeare wrote, “Better three hours too soon than a minute too late” and Ralph Waldo Emerson penned, “You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.” And despite the broad consensus within the scientific and environmental community that we are living amid climate and extinction crises, we continue to wait, and watch, as species after species withers toward the permanence of extinction.
Sometimes, it is unavoidable. Sometimes it is not, but we continue our traditions of failing to act until it is too late.
Today, we are again on extinction watch, witnessing the world’s smallest cetacean – the vaquita porpoise – succumb to the inexorable pressures of illegal fishing and trafficking in totoaba swim bladders. Last reports have the population at no more than 15. Last November, we watched hopefully (critics said, hopelessly!) as a last minute and heroic rescue was undertaken to bring as many as possible of the then-30 remaining individuals into human care (I’ll avoid the polarizing term “captivity”). It was a desperate effort, but desperation was all we had left. That effort failed, and once again, we have failed to understand what author Og Mandino calls, “the immeasurable distance between late and too late.”
We could have saved the vaquita. We have the technology and talent to capture and to learn to care for them. Had we deployed those assets when there were 1000 or 500 or perhaps even 100 vaquita remaining, there is no doubt we would have succeeded. So, why didn’t we?
My theory is that there is a continuing and debilitating bias within and among environmental and academic communities regarding the practice of conservation breeding. I am not going to fully explore the origins of, or remedies for, this bias in a 750-word editorial, but that exploration must be undertaken. Nature is a diminishing resource; we are consuming it voraciously. We cannot save every species, but we can save many. The vaquita is one that could have been saved.
Certainly, one bias is that bringing a species into human care will discourage or distract efforts to deal with the causes of its decline, like illegal or unsustainable fishing. In the case of vaquita, I asked this question of a long-time friend and colleague in the environmental community: Can you give me a single example of where that has actually happened? They could not, although I offered no less than a dozen examples of where the opposite has happened, including California condors and lead poisoning; black-footed ferrets and sylvatic plague; wolves and social stigmas about wolves; Guam kingfisher and brown tree snakes; and on and on and on.
It is time for us to come together. Human society cannot support a world population of 7.5 billion, let alone 10 billion, and stop extinction. But if we continue acting as a weak confederacy of environmentalist, animal protection, conservation, education, academic and zoological interests, then extinction will certainly and repeatedly defeat us. And it doesn’t need to be so. We must stand united. We must build conservation strategies that carefully and strategically integrate in situ and ex situ strategies, and reject the notions that one is ethically or intentionally superior, or pursuing one will make the other subservient or unnecessary.
The distance between late and too late is immeasurable, but we continue to act as if we can measure it, and determine the precise moment at which ex situ means can be deployed. The vaquita experience, once again, reminds us of the hubris in that position. We will lose the vaquita because we were too timid, too divided, and too vested in solving the root-problems to bother with stopping to save the species itself.
Hopefully, this time, we have learned.
I propose an immediate, determined and purposeful dialogue among our confederation of interests, aiming to inspire unification and avoid the next vaquita experience. Let’s examine our history of successes and failures, and let’s set ourselves onto a new course of integrated conservation planning. The AZA community is dedicating itself to Saving Animals From Extinction, applying awareness, education, inspiration, government relations, political savvy, communication, fund raising, friend raising, arm twisting, and yes, both in situ and ex situ conservation as essential ingredients to success.
Let’s begin anew, and create a better future.
Note: this editorial was originally published in the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) Quarterly Report June 2018, pg 24-25.