E. O. Wilson, referring to the ethical imperative we should apply to the conservation of life, said “The ethical imperative should be, first of all, prudence. We should judge every scrap of biodiversity as priceless while we learn to use it and to come to understand what it means to humanity” (pg. 351, The Diversity of Life). Although, I would argue we should aim to learn biodiversity’s value, both intrinsic and extrinsic, as opposed to what it solely means to humanity, his point is protect now, study later. The reason being that there is still so much to learn in order to adequately assess the Earth’s biological riches, by the time we inventory and map a fraction of biodiversity, we would have lost numerous unique regions and species. Of course the opposing point of view is that we need detailed information in order to best use limited resources to best protect biodiversity. This is a major philosophical divide. In a recent, important paper by Hedley Grantham and colleagues published in Ecology Letters, the question of how long should we wait to take conservation actions was empirically tested.
The authors used simulations based on 20 years of habitat loss data from the biologically-rich Fynbos region of South Africa and knowledge about spatial distribution of Protea diversity. Protea surveys (The Protea Atlas) have been carried out over 20 years, inventorying 40,000 plots and recording 381 species within the Proteaceae. They began their simulations with no information about Protea diversity patterns and included annually increasing knowledge, set against annual habitat destruction. They showed that waiting to make conservation decisions after only 2 years resulted in species loss, because habitat loss far outweighed any advantage to gaining more information. Further, more detailed information did not appear to increase the effectiveness of conservation decisions over cruder habitat-level maps.
The philosophical divide between protect now-learn later versus the need for detailed information to maximize resources appears bridgeable. It seems that by just accumulating some rough data may go a long way towards making those important conservation decisions. Of course, the irony is that this study needed 20 years of data to adequately assess this.
Grantham, H., Wilson, K., Moilanen, A., Rebelo, T., & Possingham, H. (2009). Delaying conservation actions for improved knowledge: how long should we wait? Ecology Letters, 12 (4), 293-301 DOI: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2009.01287.x