The Moral Pitfalls of the Triage System



PHOTO: Atlas of Living Australia

Look at this photo of a baby koala. Sqqquueee!!! It’s so cute! Look at her fluffy ears! Look at her big nose and button eyes! We know that koalas are on the decline in all States and Territories except Victoria; we all know that these insanely cute marsupials are facing habitat loss and degradation due to agriculture, new roads, expanding urban areas and forestry. We know they took a hard hit when they were hunted for their soft, thick pelts in the early part of last century.

Enter the triage system.

‘Triage’ is a term mostly used in medical circles and it means prioritising patients based on the severity of their injuries. In conservation it means using a decision support system to decide which species or system to preserve: What are the chances of this species doing well if we support it? How much will it cost? What’s the cultural significance of the species? It is rare or taxonomically distinct (i.e. has few living relatives)? For something like the koala, it will do pretty well in these questions; it’s a big draw for tourism, it’s important in Australian culture, it’s the last of its family (Phascolarctidae) and it’s cute and fluffy so when policy makers and groups want to protect it people say ‘Ahh, how nice.’

The darker side of the triage system is that not all animals are cute and fluffy, not all of them have a high social standing and so the funding just won’t be allocated to them because they don’t meet the criteria. Think of the Grassland Earless Dragon. These lizards are tiny, about 1.5cm long and they live in the grasslands of NSW, the ACT and Victoria. The little dragons have been facing habitat degradation from farming (mostly livestock) for decades and are now threatened by the spread of wind farms as well, farms set up along the ridge in the grasslands they call home.

I haven’t heard of earless dragons before, I hear you say, are they cute?

Yes, they are, they’re gorgeous! That shouldn’t matter though, we should protect all species, regardless of their cuteness or social utility. We created the problems they are facing – habitat destruction and fragmentation, pollution, invasive plants and animals, climate change – so we should fix it. Morally, it’s not okay to push another species (never forget that we are merely clothed apes; Homo sapiens, the cousins of chimps and gorillas) to the point of being endangered then say ‘Oh, but you don’t meet the cut/fluffy/social utility/inexpensive criteria so you’re just going to have to make do.’ Funding is always limited and resources always scare but the bottom line is that humans don’t have the right to decide the fate of other species* because we have decided other things are more worth our money; everything should be protected. We need to change our values so that the triage system becomes obsolete because there is always enough funding to conserve everything. Look at this little dragon. Can you look him in the eye and tell him he’s not precious enough to protect?


PHOTO: Museum of Victoria 

Miriam Adams-Schimminger, Bachelor of Science, Person Who Gets Very Squueky About Cute Animals

*The debate around humans messing with evolution through making some species extinct while preserving others comes in here. It’s a really interesting line of thought and I recommend you follow it.


Interested in finding out more?

Earless dragons in Victoria:

Koalas in Queensland:

Koalas in Victoria:

Conservation Triage:

About Biodiversity Conservation Blog

I am an Associate Professor at The Australian National University and convene a (very awesome) course called Biodiversity Conservation. Myself and students in the course contribute to this blog.
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3 Responses to The Moral Pitfalls of the Triage System

  1. Alison says:

    Great article, Miri! I have to say that there may well be enough funding to conserve everything. I would go so far as to say that conservation shouldn’t be expensive, because it is something that every person should be contributing to. The key problems here are anthropocentrism, human will (or lack thereof) and politics. Unfortunately, while we are yet to overcome these problems, we do need some way to make decisions about conservation spending… The triage system is flawed, but what other options are there?

  2. Reiner says:

    NIce piece Miri, but not enough ‘depth’.
    I agree that our values ‘should’ change, but I can’t see any signs of that happening anytime soon.
    And yes, what options do you see??

    There is a book you should get your hands on asap and read with a keen eye:
    Bill Gammage: The biggest Estate on Earth – how Aborigines mads Australia.
    That could give you some ideas on what should be protected, why and how.

  3. I must say I am conflicted about triage: on one hand what you say is hard to argue against, but on the other hand the reality is that our resources are limited, so priorities must be made. See my comment on the threatened species post earlier, as it is relevant here.

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