I recently read an article by BBC Science Editor David Shukman on extinction and whether it should be considered a bad thing or not.
In the article Shukman is playing devil’s advocate and suggests that extinction may not be such a bad thing and that the reason we are so interested in saving animals like giant pandas, chimpanzees and dolphins is because they look so cute and cuddly.
There are thousands of other species on the endangered list that aren’t so aesthetically pleasing but we don’t hear about those. Are we that fickle when it comes to the ongoing existence of our fellow animals?
I have a zoologist friend who despises the panda. Actually that’s not true, she hates the way people seem to ‘pander to the panda’……ahem……She argues that the panda’s time is up and should be allowed to go extinct.
“I agree” I hear some of you say “Its survival of the fittest after all!”
“That’s outrageous!” I hear others cry. “Surely we shouldn’t allow animals to become extinct!”
If extinction is happening to an animal because of over hunting, pollution or habitat loss, due to human deforestation etc. then yes I agree with you, we should chastise ourselves and resolve to save the animal before it is too late.
However as far as the panda is concerned, my zoologist friend argues that the panda’s time has come because it can no longer reproduce without artificial insemination. The male panda’s penis is so small that it struggles to penetrate the female and impregnate her. I guess in this case size DOES matter.
The issue of course is what chain reaction the extinction of one animal sets off and how it affects its habitat and other animals.
In September 2012 I visited the Montreal Biodome. One of the information boards I read there discussed this very issue and used caimans as its example. Caimans eat piranhas, piranhas eat cichilds (small fish), cichilds eat insect larvae (most of which grow up to be mosquitoes).
The caiman are being hunted to extinction in some parts of the world which causes the piranha population to grow. More piranhas means more cichilds are being eaten, meaning more larvae survive and become adults. These insects carry deadly human diseases like malaria. So by hunting the caiman to extinction we are in fact increasing the risk of killing humans through deadly diseases.
Shukman also suggests that extinction is bad for the economy and he has a point. If there is an animal that we humans eat that goes extinct, what will happen to the humans who used to hunt or farm that animal? They will be out of a job and it will put greater pressure on other food sources.
Poaching is also a problem. Whether hunting the animal illegally for food or for a specific part of its body for medicine or artwork (in the case of rhino horns and elephant tusks), it is a criminal activity. If you are poaching for food and it’s for personal consumption only, as in “one for the pot” to feed a starving family then poaching is understandable and even necessary, but for commercial ventures? No! It is a practice that is decimating populations of shark, elephant, rhino and thousands of other species.
Another question then rears its head. If we were able to, should we bring animals back from extinction? In the April 2013 edition of National Geographic, Carl Zimmer asks if we could resurrect extinct animals, should we?
For example the Pyrenean ibex was hunted to extinction in 2000. Three years later a joint effort from Spanish and French scientists saw them successfully fertilize an egg by using cells saved from the last Pyrenean ibex before its death. The animal was carried in a surrogate’s womb but died due to breathing complications several minutes after a caesarian section.
The article goes on to list numerous other animals that humans have driven to extinction through hunting and habitat loss. It paints a very disturbing picture. Should we resurrect these animals to restore the ecological balance?
We then move on to ethics. In Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park dinosaurs are resurrected and placed in a theme park for our entertainment. Would this be ethical?
On that note the thought occurs to me that what if entrepreneurs with millions of pounds at their disposal decide to help fund “de-extinction” research? What is stopping them creating these animals in laboratories and then sending them to “special” conservation areas where hunters can pay to shoot these animals for sport? These animals would no longer be in danger of extinction because we could just make some more. Does that sound too far-fetched to you? It doesn’t to me considering these are the same people who are willing to destroy our planet with fossil fuels whilst refusing to create vehicles that run on clean bio-fuels.
And it doesn’t just stop with animals. What about plants that have become or are becoming extinct due to the climate changing too fast, disease or deforestation? These plants could contain organic compounds needed for medicines. What if we are destroying a part of the rainforest right now where a rare plant resides that holds the key for curing a previously incurable disease? If we had the opportunity should we bring these sorts of plants back from extinction?
The fact remains that extinction is a very real threat to hundreds of thousands of species on Earth and will eventually become a reality to all species. Sometimes humans are to blame like with the extinction of the dodo, and sometimes natural disasters are to blame like the asteroid that struck Earth causing the extinction of the dinosaurs. Whatever way you look at it extinction is a natural part of the Earth’s cycle and we humans will eventually have to face the fact that, like our hominid cousins, we too will become extinct one day.
What is your view on extinction and “de-extinction”? Should we be playing God?