Archive for the ‘extinction’ Category

This blog has had to take a backseat as work and life have become busier. I will find a balance between the three soon, and begin posting more regularly here. Thanks to any readers who have stuck around despite the lack of consistent posts.

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Defenders of Wildlife CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark recently published an interesting article examining the ethics of de-extinction. De-extinction, or the practice of using preserved DNA to bring extinct animals back to life, might sound like something out of a science fiction novel, but in reality scientists have the tools they need to make this possible, thus shifting the conversation from ‘can we’ to ‘should we’.

The most popular examination of de-extinction is, arguably, the book and movie Jurassic Park. Stephen King’s story appealed to the curious masses, popularizing the concept of bringing back prehistoric species. Although restoring  dinosaur populations is outside the realm of current scientific capabilities, there is a potential to re-introduce other prehistoric creatures. According to Clark, the woolly mammoth is one species scientists are looking at bringing back. As Clark mentions, with the new-found ability to recreate extinct species comes a new-found responsibility to examine whether doing so is ethical. She points out that the woolly mammoth was driven to extinction by several factors: hunting, climate change, and habitat loss. The habitat the woolly mammoth once occupied no longer exists in the same state. Furthermore, how will the mammoths learn behaviors like foraging skills and predator response if there are no previous mammoths to teach it? Most likely, they would have to exist in artificial habitats controlled by humans. What, then, is the purpose of de-extinction if the mammoths wouldn’t be able to occur naturally in the wild? The purpose is obvious: to satisfy human curiosity. 

The passenger pigeon is another species that is being considered for de-extinction. This bird succumbed in part to habitat loss but primarily to hunting, and herein lies another ethical challenge. Humans played a major role in the extinction of the passenger pigeon, hunting the birds en masse for their meat. Should we bring back this species that we’ve already driven to extinction once? Isn’t this treating the effect, not the cause? And does this pave the way for a global apathy towards current conservation efforts? Clark says, “There is a real threat that the excitement of de-extinction could unintentionally undermine current species conservation.” If we have the option to ‘bring back a species later,’ what motivation are we left with to preserve species and habitats now?

Bringing a species back from extinction to satisfy a human curiosity is no less selfish than the behaviors that led to that or other extinctions in the first place. The argument about the ethics behind de-extinction seem to come back to this point: de-extinction treats the effect instead of the cause. We need to prioritize the conservation of species that are facing extinction today, in current ecosystems and climate stages, instead of trying to bring back species that have already been driven to extinction. Focusing on de-extinction takes money and resources away from conservation crises that are occurring now. We need to stay present in our conservation efforts. Bringing back the woolly mammoth might quench our curiosity about this ancient species, but it won’t help preserve species that are in peril today*.

Link: De-Extinction: A Lifeline or Pandora’s Box?

*To be fair, it could be argued that, in some cases, bringing back an extinct species might help restore a struggling population of a specific endangered species, but I can’t speak to those hypotheticals.

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Professor Douglas Macmillan and PhD student Daniel Challender recently spoke at the CITES conference in Bangkok on their paper challenging current wildlife trade policies. They argued that addressing wildlife conservation from an economic standpoint, as opposed to the more common moral or ethical standpoint, is the key to reducing poaching and seeing measurable progress in the conservation of species that are heavily poached.

Aggressive conservation practices that are currently in place encourage illegal wildlife trade and distribution on the black market. Challender  said, “Aggressive enforcement measures are simply driving trade into the hands of powerful and highly organized crime syndicates.” He continued, “In simple terms, wildlife populations are best protected if their values alive exceeds their value dead…”

The focus, they conclude, should instead be on ensuring that wildlife is worth more alive than it is dead. The paper suggests implementing a trade ban to simplify issues surrounding wildlife trade and.

The authors concluded that without new conservation incentives, we could see widespread extinction of highly threatened species.

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The challenge, as the paper states, will be to maintain public interest and funding for wildlife conservation despite a marketing strategy that relies on economics instead of ethics. This issue demonstrates differences in the valuation of wildlife between cultures. In developed countries wildlife can be seen as a national treasure, and something worth preserving and protecting. However, in many under-developed countries, wildlife is a means of income, whether through hunting, illegal poaching and trade, or farming and domestication. Even between cultures in developed countries, though, opinions and values placed on wildlife can differ. Bison are viewed by some as a cultural icon, while others view bison as nuisance and a threat to their livelihood. This difference of opinion within cultures likely occurs in underdeveloped communities as well.

The main point I drew from this article is that placing a moral value on wildlife is not enough to ensure the conservation of a species. It does not prevent illegal trade or poaching, and it’s possible that these activities threaten the species even further, due to habitat destruction and harmful poaching methods. Instead of trying to win the battle with ethical pleas, we should be creating economic incentives to dissuade poachers from taking wildlife illegally, and to dissuade traders from purchasing poached wildlife. Further economic incentives could come in the form of reporting by locals of confirmed poaching instances, although the potential social implications of that would be another issue to consider altogether. Whatever the methods, it’s clear that we need to re-evaluate current wildlife trade prevention methods and update protocol so that endangered species are being better protected.


Conservationists Call for Radical Change to ‘war On Poaching’

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A report recently published on Live Mint has revealed that over half of India’s wildlife budget goes to protecting tigers. For the 2012-2013 year, $31 million of the $63 million budget were allocated to Project Tiger. Tigers are listed as endangered in India, but the country is also home to over 130 species that are listed as critically endangered (the status preceding extinction).

Elephant conservation efforts received the next largest funding amount, at $4 million, while–ironically–$1 million went to efforts to prevent illegal wildlife trade.

It’s not new news that more glamorous endangered species tend to receive the most funding for conservation efforts. Tigers and elephants are two examples, along with polar bears, snow leopards, and gorillas, to name just a few. The allocation of conservation funding, which is already in short supply, says a lot about a country’s priorities. There are both pros and cons to this allocation method–that is, spending more money on conserving the most globally-treasured species.

The obvious tendency, in India and worldwide, is to funnel money towards more popular endangered species while focusing less on smaller, less impressive species. While this affects species existing outside of the realm of public knowledge, it does propel conservation as a broader topic into the general population’s awareness. So while the Indian Bustard is facing extinction with only 250 left in the wild, tiger conservation efforts are, at least, making people more aware of the need to conserve wildlife.

This funding method also has its drawbacks. By focusing attention, money, and efforts on the these hot-ticket species, we are failing to account for the chain of events that occurs when any species, even a fish or a small bird, has on the ecosystem. Any time any species is removed from their habitat, other species will be affected. There will be disruptions in prey availability, foraging availability, nesting or burrowing options, or disease or pest control. Conserving less publicly-compelling species is necessary for protecting an overall habitat, and it’s likely that a hot-ticket species, such as the tiger, exists in an ecosystem that incorporates one of these critically endangered ‘lesser’ species.

Also worth pointing out in the break-down of India’s conservation spending is its prioritization of illegal wildlife trade efforts. In spending only $1 million on reducing illegal trade, while spending $31 million on tiger conservation, are they approaching the issue backwards? If they instead focused the majority of their budget and efforts on illegal trade, would tiger numbers naturally start to recover? Obviously there are economic considerations at play here, about which I’m not qualified to speculate. but the break-down is interesting, and would be an interesting study to take further.


Tigers Get the Conservation Love in India

It’s Time to Look Beyond the Tiger

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A recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B found that in the case of marine animals, geographic range is the key determinant of a species’ extinction risk.

The study was led by Paul Harnik of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, and along with Carl Simpson from the Museum für Naturkunde and Jonathan Payne of Stanford University. Together, they studied over 6500 marine animal fossils from 500 million years ago, looking for common factors in extinction rates. They found a pattern among the fossils indicating that marine species with narrow ranges are more likely to go extinct than other species.

The study challenges common assumptions that rare species are most likely to face extinction. The term ‘rare’, the study found, could be applied to a number of factors, including population size, geographic range, or the animal’s tolerable habitat range (that is, where they are capable of surviving outside of their established range). In fact, animals with both a narrow geographic range and a small range of habitat were six times more likely to go extinct than animals with healthy populations and adequate ranges.

The significance of this study lies in its relevance to the impact of climate change and human development on oceans and ocean animals. The article cites global warming, ocean acidification, and overfishing as three main factors affecting marine animals’ ranges. Global warming, in particular, directly affects ocean ranges by causing marine areas to warm up, decrease in size, or change in other measurable ways. As these changes occur, a species’ range becomes more narrow, increasing the species’ risk of extinction.

Thus, climate change has a more significant affect on marine wildlife than what was perhaps initially understood. While ocean acidification and overfishing directly impact a species’ population numbers, it is the range of that species that determines its chance of survival. Therefore, the erect-crested penguin, found in healthy numbers but along only a small section of New Zealand coast, could be as at-risk as polar bears, whose numbers are small but whose range is significantly larger than that of the  penguin’s. Combating climate change and its affects on wild species is a two-part battle: we must protect the species that are declining in population as well as those species who seem to be thriving, but have small, restrictive geographic ranges.


EurekaAlert Article

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