There is an article in Saturday’s Otago Daily Times article titled “Yellow-eyed penguin support funding in crisis” which outlines a decrease in funding for the hoiho, or yellow eyed penguin from the Dunedin City Council and the Otago Regional Council. It brings up some really interesting points about the way that we are running conservation at the moment, and how we allocate funding to conservation projects.

Conservation biology has always been a crisis discipline, and we often compare it to emergency medicine because both are about making life or death decisions based on imperfect information. Conservation biology also borrows the concept of triage from emergency medicine, as we also have an overwhelming number of species that need conservation attention and need to prioritise the care of these species. And we can extend that healthcare metaphor a little further by describing the organisations working on hoiho conservation as the ambulances at the bottom of the cliff. They are picking up what is left of the population, nursing them back to health, then discharging them back into the wild. And, in our extended healthcare metaphor, ecosystem restoration projects, can be described as public health projects, as they prevent our species from crash landing at the bottom of the cliff and needing critical care.

I am very much pro both preventative health care and preventative conservation care, but as we are in a biodiversity crisis, we cannot just spend money on prevention. You would not, for example, fund diabetes prevention but refuse to fund the care of my neighbours broken leg, but this is what our councils are doing by funding a tree planting project rather than funding the acute care an ill penguin. And the healthcare metaphor breaks down here, as those who prioritise patients in a health situation are experts whereas our city and regional councillors are acting as conservation experts, despite this not necessarily being their area of expertise.

Conservation is my area of expertise, and my advice is this: I understand that you have limited funding and a lot of projects on which to spend that funding. You have a genuinely hard job. However, we are in a biodiversity crisis and if you want positive conservation outcomes, you have to spend money both on the acute care of species and on the care of the ecosystems in which these same species live. As hoiho is a creature that lives between ecosystems, this means that you have to care for the beaches and dunes as well as our seas. The bonus is that when you protect the hoiho’s ecosystem, you will by extension be conserving all of the fauna, flora and fungi that live in these ecosystems. And, you also need to fund the pest trapping and the tree planting in other ecosystems too. Ecosystems take a long time to re-establish and, until they have, we will need to spend on both the acute and the long term care of our biodiversity.

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