In the congressional debate now in progress on the renewal of the Endangered Species Act, keep your eye on the gazelle goulash and wildebeest casserole theory. It is advanced by a British scientist who believes that the world's wildlife could be better protected by controlled animal-cropping.

In a recent issue of International Wildlife, the scientist wrote: "The sooner the Africans can enjoy gazelle goulash and wildebeest casserole, and the sooner the trade in zebra skins is regulated and expanded--rather than decried and suppressed--the sooner a more hopeful era will dawn for African animals."

While gourmets pass up Hamburger Helper and await the day when medium-rare gazelle brightens their dinner plates, few established conservationists take this proposal seriously. Killing animals on a sustained yield basis may be of some minor benefit for a short time. But it is no substitute for what is needed: an immediate global halting to the deliberate or unwitting destruction of nonhuman species that is rapidly driving large numbers of animals and plants to extinction.

In the United States, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 is due for re- authorization by Oct. 1. If it is not renewed, it will expire. For 10 years, the best known part of the law has been the listing of endangered species. This off-limits provision is meant to give legal sanctuary to animals and plants threatened by humans moving in on nature with everything from the developer's bulldozer to the gunner's rifle to the furrier's buy order. The law is violated when a listed specie is killed, captured or sold.

Until lately, a number of reasons have kept alarm about extinction contained to a few conservationists. To the general public, species like the dodo or passenger pigeon vanished because of evolutionary flaws. In fact, both were hunted to extinction. In "The Doomsday Book: A Natural History of Vanished Species," David Day writes that "before the expansion of Western man and his culture, the extinction of an animal was a rare occurrence . . . the rate of the dinosaurs' extinction has been estimated at not greater than one species per thousand years." Today the rate of extinction is one a day. Biologists are warning that it may be one an hour in a few years.

The other misperception is that the endangered species debate is one of those thorny legitimate-goals-are-in- conflict type of issues. That argument was advanced during the snail darter controversy. The little fish is lovely, said those who labeled themselves realists, but the Tellico dam will provide jobs and electricity.

For a little while it might. But the long while is where the focus needs to be. We seem to be nearly blind to destructive consequences that go further than the arms-length of tomorrow. The annihilationists of 300 years ago who mockingly asked the question, "Who needs the dodo?," are the commercialists and exploiters of today who ask, Who needs the bald eagles, bobcats, grizzly bears and furbish louseworts?

The question is really, Who needs life? The answer--We do--is no longer voiced by merely the conservationists of conscience. At congressional hearings, scientists have been speaking of the absolute necessity for "biological diversity" and for preserving "the chemical treasure of nature."

In their support of a strong renewed Endangered Species Act, the scientists are backing both the law and the spirit behind it, as expressed by the biologist E. O. Wilson: "the worst thing that can happen--will happen--is not energy depletion, economic collapse, limited nuclear war or a conquest by a totalitarian government. As terrible as these catastrophes can be for us, they can be repaired within a few generations. The one process ongoing in the 1980s that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. This is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us." Despite compelling arguments like that, commercialists are waging a well- financed campaign to weaken or eliminate the law. They are not so flip as to call for gazelle goulash. Instead they talk defiantly of the rights of foresters, miners, pavers and gunners. They want rights for today, with no obligations for tomorrow.