Conservation triage: clarity or confusion?


A guest post by Ian Lunt on the importance of clear communication for conservation science.

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. And our audience may hear different things again.

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.

Triage 3 forms.jpeg
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.

11 thoughts on “Conservation triage: clarity or confusion?

  1. Ben Courtice June 15, 2016 / 9:50 PM

    Triage implies crisis and limited resources, hence the need for urgent prioritisation. In a hospital, this is of course inevitable. You have to determine the order in which you see patients. But is the same level of minute-to-minute crisis present in conservation decisions? Extinction usually plays out over years or more. It is predictable if anyone is watching. There is often time to mobilise extra resources.

    The assumptions of ecological triage should not be that we have too few resources and must decide which species go extinct. As ecologists, we should never accept that. We should always aim to save all species that can be saved. We may not have the political support, but we should continue to fight for it.

    Questioning the assumption that we don’t have enough resources is key. Who decided that? Who gets society’s resources if endangered species don’t? Is that justifiable? Ecologists may be forced to work within that terrible lack of resources, but should not take ownership of it. We might have to decide the order in which we work on endangered species, but we should not give up on fighting for all species, or we risk becoming a part of the problem – if only by justifying its parameters.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Ian Lunt June 16, 2016 / 7:07 PM

      Hi Ben, thanks for writing in.

      Great points, and despite all the different approaches I imagine that most people involved in the issue share your sentiments.

      Your last point about questioning the assumptions is probably the key issue in the Sophie’s Choice analogy – our first response should always be, “says who?” If we don’t challenge that, we’re stuffed.

      Thanks again and best wishes, Ian

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ben Courtice June 17, 2016 / 8:35 PM

        Thanks Ian. I first came across the term “conservation triage” from a nitwit who appeared to be saying that conservationists needed to “man up” and take the hard choices about which species would go extinct. I’m not opposed to prioritising our actions at all, but I have a visceral reaction to the term and that idea that conservationists should “decide who goes extinct”. Hence my initial comment. Your disambiguation of the many uses is useful. I’d certainly be happy if conservationists dropped the term from use!

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Sarah Maddox June 17, 2016 / 8:06 AM

    Hallo Ian

    Thanks for a very interesting post. I really like your point about being cautious when using the word “triage”, with all the connotations it pulls along with it into the reader’s mind. Communication is a process that involves two parties equally: the sender who assembles the message in order to send it, and the receiver who assembles the message in order to understand it.

    In the software development world, we use the word “triage” for the process of assessing and prioritising bugs – that is, issues reported in our software or documentation. (I’m a technical writer, so the latter is more applicable to me.) In this case, the process includes an assessment of whether the problem actually exists (is reproducible) and an initial stab at finding the cause. This is a valuable phase, as it can reduce the number of unresolved issues, and can even result in a quick fix in those rare cases where the cause is easy to diagnose and solve. I wonder, does this phase apply in conservation triage too?



    • Ian Lunt June 17, 2016 / 9:27 AM

      Hi Sarah, thanks for writing in. That’s a different perspective. I’m curious what the direct analogy to your software example would be in conservation: perhaps the question would be, “is the species actually endangered (or just reported to be so) and, if so, is there a very obvious reason that can be treated quickly?”

      I imagine this happens all the time, but is usually dealt with by different groups than those who address “triage” (in all its forms) at a higher level.

      For example, most endangered species are surveyed initially by local people (volunteers or employed staff), and their findings might raise concerns which are then relayed to government authorities.

      The species may then be placed on an endangered species list. At this stage, the species may be judged to be rare, threatened, endangered, highly endangered, which would indicate the level of threat. The species on these list may then be subjected to a more formal prioritisation process, to see where funds could be most effectively spent. This later phase is called ‘triage’ by some conservation scientists and managers (or may just be called ‘prioritisation’ by others).

      So, in this sense, the formal process of ‘triage’ or prioritisation is often applied to a much later phase of investigations. A main difference between the software example and most conservation issues is that software bugs are reported initially to a centralised position (the ‘bug fixer’) whereas conservation issues are usually dealt with in a much more decentralised way first. There are thousands of fantastic ‘bug fixers’ in local conservation groups and agencies.

      Thanks again and best wishes, Ian


  3. Peter Morison June 17, 2016 / 8:14 AM

    Under our current system decisions about species survival exist solely within the political realm. Therefore it is important that politicians be made to announce these decision. They should be publicly declaring which species they have decided to send to extinction and why. I could create a different public discussion. Also ecologists need to always attach such decisions back to the politicians and not let them hide.


    • Ian Lunt June 17, 2016 / 9:44 AM

      Hello Peter, thanks for your comment.

      I don’t know any ecologist (or conservation manager or volunteer) who is interested in covering up for politicians who decide not to support conservation. But perhaps I just don’t mix with right (or ‘wrong’) people.

      I did want to make the point that some conservation scientists use triage in a different way to many people in society, and that this poor word choice risks creating problems – including the spectre that you raise in your comment, where science is seen as paving the way for poor political decisions. None of us can afford to give a politician any excuse for inactivity.

      Thanks again, Ian


  4. jwhitewildlife June 17, 2016 / 9:59 AM

    Interesting read Ian.

    I have never been a fan of the triage term in Conservation. I suspect it is largely because no one can agree what it means, as you point out very effectively.

    The premise of your blog that we need to be careful and clear about how we use terms etc is spot on. As scientists we need to be far better at articulating exactly what we mean and how we intend for something to be read. This probably means using less jargon and putting concepts in a clearer and more digestible language. Same can probably be said for journal articles, which are so technical they can be completely inaccessible to anyone outside the field.

    Great blog, as usual 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ian Lunt June 17, 2016 / 10:19 AM

      Hi John, thanks for your comment, I’m glad you liked the post. I agree with all your good points but I think there is one extra thing we need to think about.

      Many scientific papers clearly define what they mean by triage, so there is not necessarily any internal ambiguity within a paper. The challenge is that, we can define terms very well in a paper while, at the same time, ignoring or dismissing other interpretations in the wider world. This creates big problems when we assume that ‘our’ definition (whatever it is) is the most appropriate one. This is the classic problem of ‘bubble think’ which exists in all social groups, not just in science. The problems become even bigger when the words can be used to justify political outcomes, as others have noted above.

      Thanks again, and best wishes, Ian


  5. Neville Sacrlett June 17, 2016 / 5:57 PM

    The problem with deciding whether a sp. is worth saving or not is that there is simply not enough info. ( for any sp. that I know of ) to make such a decision. Even the best researched spp. have only been observed over a relatively short time-interval under the climatic conditions of that time period. Minimal viable popln figures,say,can only, strictly speaking apply to the time period of the particular study and any extrapolation of such a figure is hazardous.


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