The image of the woolly mammoth, saber-toothed cat and dodo bird stepping out of a beaker on the cover of National Geographic’s April issue says it all. Science has found a way to bring back some long-extinct species — or at least, facsimiles of them.
In truth, the goat-like bucardo, or Pyrenean ibex, is the only extinct animal scientists have actually revived. In 2003, biologists managed to clone an offspring from frozen skin cells from the last survivor, which died in 2000. The clone, however, lived for only a few minutes after its birth. Since then, advances in cloning technology have made it possible to bring back any species if there is a remnant of DNA.
But with so many habitat pressures on the wild species that are already here and with so many on the brink of extinction, is bringing back those we’ve already lost a good idea?
A new species of lion has recently been discovered, announced the National Geographic Society a few weeks ago. Were the animals caught by camera trap or spotted by a tracker in the remote regions of Africa? No. They were found — in all places — in an Ethiopian zoo. It’s questionable whether any other representatives of this species are alive in the wild today.
All over the world, the struggle to keep endangered species from going extinct is often played out in zoos or in captive breeding centers. The last known Tasmanian tiger lived out its life in a zoo before it died in 1936, giant pandas are being bred in Chinese reserves and whooping cranes are being raised at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland.
Living in zoos or in other places of captivity, however, changes wild animals — sometimes to the point where behaviorally they little resemble their wild counterparts. But is keeping an altered, threatened wild species from going extinct better than losing it altogether?
In the hot, desert climate of Dubai on the Arabian Peninsula, 20 penguins are living in comfort, say the managers of Ski Dubai, the first indoor ski resort in the Middle East. The birds reside in a climate-controlled environment, receive the best veterinary care, and never have to worry about lurking predators.
When you visit Ski Dubai, you can pay to have a “penguin encounter,” where you’ll be able to play with and touch the penguins. Representatives of the resort say that these animals are “ambassadors,” teaching patrons about their wild counterparts and the need to conserve their threatened natural habitat, Antarctica.
But can animals that have been born and raised in captivity and habituated to humans in unnatural ways ever be true ambassadors for the natural world? Can they teach us anything about the wild or move us to care for the environments from which they are so distantly removed?
There are more tigers in captivity (such as this one) than there are left in the wild. ©John T. Andrews
There are some statistics that you hear that knock your socks off, and you just can’t quite believe them. You think they’re concocted purely to get attention and for shock value. Here’s one I recently came across that fits that category: There are more tigers in American backyards than there are left in the wild throughout the world.
How could that be?! I wondered. After all, the tiger isn’t even indigenous to the United States! It turns out that there is very little regulation on keeping wild tigers here. And because their body parts are prized in Asian black markets for traditional medicines and folk remedies — and because they are popular subjects for photographers and as college mascots — trafficking in and owning tigers becomes a means of making money.
The white lemuroid possum may soon hold a brand-new world title: First species to go extinct due to climate change.
In December 2009, scientists reported that the possum is missing from its only home in the mountain forests of northern Queensland, Australia. It hasn’t been seen there in three years. A slight temperature rise (of only 1 or 2 degrees) is likely the reason: The possum typically dies in as few as four or five hours at 86 degrees Fahrenheit.