BIOETHICS CASE: What do we preserve when we aim for 'biodiversity'?

Imagine youself as an ornithologist working in the tropics. You meet a wealthy patron of preservation--someone who has purchased tens of thousands of acres to conduct research on innovative sustainable agriculture. This local magnate (whose fortune comes from owning a national soda-bottling franchise) is an avid birder. He wants to rescue the dwindling population of hyacinth macaws, whose habitat is shrinking due to timbering. These magnificent, impressive birds nest in the hollows of old trees, so that even if new trees are planted to replace the forests, the old trees and nesting sites are still lost. The situation is aggravated because the local people are poor enough that they are motivated to capture the birds and sell them (at very high prices) to traders who smuggle them and market them to wealthy bird collectors. This patron is keen on a hypothetical scheme to take macaws from the wild, raise them in captivity and release them on his own land, establishing a protected population on his "nature preserve." You know that the macaws have never been native to this area, however, and in the past they have retreated away from areas of human habitation. Taking the birds into captivity would mean virtually eliminating their status in the wild. In your professional judgment, the potential for this plan's success is slim, yet you can see that the man is emotionally attached to this particular scheme. In addition, the project would be very expensive and you see other more effective ways of investing the same resources in preservation efforts. The wealthy birder asks for your assistance in this project. What do you do? [adapted from an actual case]

Commentary. Two major ethical questions emerge. First, what is it that we value when we talk about preserving species or diversity? Second, how do motives and forseeable consequences interact?

Clearly, our wealthy preservationist is not among those who want only to consume nature or to exploit it merely for profit. That is, he exhibits respect for the birds themselves--and for the local inhabitants, as well. Here, the aim of saving the species of macaw is intended to express the value of `biodiversity'. But what does preservation mean in this case? The plan would save the species, but not their original habitat. One might as well keep the animals in a zoo. Likewise, if all we valued was genetic diversity, we could collect and store samples of gametes. Respect for a 'species' entails preserving its natural setting. `Biodiversity' is not just a matter of number of species. It means valuing any species just as we find them.

Further, what might it mean to demonstrate "respect" just for the macaws--as captivatingly beautiful as they are--while not investing similar resources for other species: beetles, plants, frogs, fungi, spiders? In this regard, the problem parallels decisions to save "popular" but "expensive" species, such as the Florida panther, which in 1990 called for almost $5 million per animal. Such efforts drain resources from overall preservation. If concern for species is based on a general principle, one cannot express favoritism (beauty, human-like status). Biodiversity mean valuing all species.

Consider other possible alternatives actions in this case:

A stopgap measure to preserve just the macaw will not alter the fundamental conditions that have led to the current situation--which may then recur in other guises. An ethical solution should address the process and not just the product.

Consider, then, the motives versus the consequences. Suppose you convey all these thoughts to the patron as a justification for why he should reconsider his "pet" project--and he replies that if it is not worth pursuing, then he is not interested in spending his money on anything. Should you support the project, hoping to possibly save the macaws? --Or do you refuse because it would be trying to do so for the wrong reasons? Which is more important: actually saving the macaws, or the way in which you show them respect? The first may seem obvious, but the ethical question becomes most focused if one asks how one shows respect for a species that is not yet extinct but which, due to population size, will inevitably disappear. How do we express our values: through a concern for the means or for the ends?

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