Radical Ways to Fight Extinction

Look, here’s a picture of a tiger:

Tiger sitting on a log

Courtesy Klaus Post

A century ago there were about 100,000 of these guys in the wild.  Today, that number has dropped more than 95%, meaning tigers might soon be gone forever!

And there are thousands of other species in peril too (some estimates range as high as 30% of all species on earth).  Compared with the fossil record, today’s extinction rate is many times faster than average, leading some biologists to say we’re undergoing a mass extinction event.

Holy cow!  This trend does not lead to the kind of future I want.  In this post I’ll offer you a few reminders of why species preservation is so important, and some causes of the problem.   Most importantly though, I want to look at ideas for how to save species from disappearing.  None of the ideas I’ve collected are perfect, so if you have any to add, please speak up in the comments!

But first things first.

Biodiversity is important for:

  1. Agriculture.  Many important foods depend on a specific species (a breed of corn, or a pollinating bee).  Losing any one of them could cripple our crops.
  2. Resources.  Paper, timber, rubber, dye, certain oils , and other resources we use every day come from certain species.  Plus, 80% of the world population depends on medicines from nature.
  3. Eco cycles.  The water cycle and regulation of the atmosphere both depend heavily on plants and some animals.  Also, the loss of specific predators and pathogens can increase the spread of some diseases.
  4. Resilience.  A diverse, robust biosphere will be more resilient to external shocks and will have a better chance of adapting to change.  A biosphere whose critical roles are filled by just one or two species may be functional, but is dangerously close to collapse.
  5. Its own sake.  This is the argument that speaks most directly to my heart.  Call it what you will – aesthetic appreciation or spiritual responsibility – but I think an earth with lots of amazing and unique animals is a worthy goal in its own right.  Some things have value far beyond their practical applications – wouldn’t you agree?

…but it’s threatened by:

  1. Climate change.  Every species has evolved to fit in with its habitat. But if the climate shifts rapidly, those habitats will get scrambled, and their residents won’t have time to adapt.
  2. Encroachment. The human population is ballooning, which is why more and more natural wildlife habitat is being displaced by human settlement.
  3. Poaching / hunting.  Despite local and national regulations, killing of endangered animals is quite common, whether for monkey meat or rhino horns.
Sea turtle at sea

Green sea turtle, Kona

…so maybe we should try:

1. Plant Bank.  Actually, a version of this already exists.  The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a temperature-controlled facility buried deep beneath the Norwegian permafrost.  Within are 1.5 million seed samples from all around the world.  It’s essentially a bank of genetic material we can draw on in case of species loss.  It contains mostly crops, but there’s no reason we couldn’t do the same thing with other seeding plants.

2. Animal Bank.  Extending this seed-storage concept to animals is not trivial, but bear with me.   We’re already good at preserving human embryos by freezing them – it’s routinely done during fertility treatments, and the embryos have a 90% survival rate.  We could do something similar with animal species, albeit on a much grander scale.  The obstacle here is that the maintenance is apparently quite expensive.  Plus, we’d need to store a huge number of samples for each species, a breeding-size population at least.

3. A Gene Bank.  Taking the idea one step further, we don’t need to store actual specimens. If we collect their genomes instead, we can store animals in a hard drive rather than a bank of freezers. Of course, there’s still a huge gap between a DNA sequence and a real, living organism.  J. Craig Venter has created one-celled organisms using synthetic genomes, but it will be pretty far into the future before we can reconstitute an entire gorilla from a few billion As, Gs, Cs and Ts.

[All three of these “Noah’s Ark” type solutions have a similar problem: introducing (or re-introducing) a species to an unfamiliar area can be a recipe for disaster.  We shouldn’t unleash any of our preserved species until we’ve made sure they can fit into the new environment.]

Mountain gorilla

Mountain gorilla

4. Assisted Migration.  Climate change will, roughly speaking, take our existing climates and shift them north- or southward, towards the poles.  As noted, species left behind are hard-pressed to survive.  So why not move the animals along with the climate?  Actually, it’s a sign of desperation that conservationists are even broaching the idea.  After all, one of the cardinal rules of conservation is that introducing non-native species into a new area can be highly destructive.  But as biologist and assisted-migration advocate Camille Parmesan has concluded, “Doing nothing is risky too. There is no no-risk option.”

5. Nature preserves.  There are many of these around the world, and it’s true that designated human-free areas can allow wildlife to thrive.  They do need constant oversight, since poachers remain a threat.  And preserves must be either extremely large, or interconnected, to allow sufficient territory for animals, plus enough genetic diversity.

6. Slow climate change and preserve habitat.  This is the big one, the solution that’s ultimately the most effective, but highly challenging to implement.  Regarding climate change, I’ve written many times about the importance of carbon-free energy sources (see here, here and here), so I won’t belabor the point.  As for habitat conservation, there are efforts underway there as well.  But in the end, I think the only permanent solution to either problem is to somehow address population growth.

So that’s everything I can think of.  Like I said, some of these ideas are radical, perhaps even unworkable, but I’m at a loss for alternatives.  If you have anything to add, be sure to speak up in the comments.  And please pass this post on to your friends, so at least we can all share the vision of a rich, thriving planet!

Where to Take Action:

WWF  wildlife initiatives

Nature Conservancy habitat campaign

Marine Habitat Preservation (scroll down for a list of actions)

7 thoughts on “Radical Ways to Fight Extinction

  1. Great post Scott. I read somewhere recently that there may be as few as 3,000 tigers left on the planet…that’s sickening. I like your idea of the gene bank. Great post as always!

  2. Another, frequently understated, benefit of rich biodiversity is the impact on future innovations. It’s astounding how many inventions we use now, and those yet to be invented, are directly inspired by observations and lessons from ecosystems.

  3. Pingback: Seed banks great and small « Allana Potash Blog

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