I have to admit it: last year, my traveling to Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, to see polar bears in the wild was motivated not only by a 10-year anniversary but by a fear that soon the animals could be gone. I go to see glaciers because I’m afraid we’re losing them. And this coming January, I’m returning to Yellowstone National Park to try to photograph our nation’s wolves before they almost completely disappear in the Lower 48 — again.
You could call me an “extinction tourist.”
I’m far from unique. In fact, today people are traveling in ever-greater numbers to see what they think could quickly vanish from the Earth. While just a few years ago travelers might have endeavored to tick off all seven continents or Africa’s Big Five wildlife species, today there’s a certain “cred” given to those who see the landscapes, animals and plants that are just managing to hang on. And tour providers are tapping into that desire with their marketing messages. “See [fill in your favorite endangered animals] before they’re gone!”
But should tourism companies use threatened species as marketing tools? Given our ability to tune out ads, does that minimize the dire circumstances that these animals and environments are now in and dilute the attention that conservation messages might have been able to muster?
Despite efforts such as anti-poaching patrols, increased arrests, relocation and unmanned security drones, it seems we’re losing the battle against wildlife poachers. Already in the first six months of 2013, for example, in South Africa alone, more than 200 rhinos have died at the hands of poachers.
Rhino horns are in demand because the desire for traditional “medicines” in Asia is growing. Products that contain rhino horn are touted as successful cancer treatments, and rhino horn is being marketed even in hospitals to the families of critically ill patients. It’s also being pitched as a trendy hangover remedy. In Vietnam, the country that has recently emerged as the single largest market for rhino horn, the item is considered a very high-value gift. That’s why some innovative wildlife conservationists have come up with a plan to make the horns of living rhinoceroses toxic.
But should we alter the makeup and appearance of wildlife, even if it is in an effort to save animals from poaching and extinction?
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?
There’s a great story that my mom used to tell regarding her family’s dog. It involved her brother, who was at the time a young man just returning from three long years in the Pacific theater during World War II. When he stepped out of the car and onto the lawn, the dog walked up to greet him, took a good look and a sniff and then began to jump and dance around uncontrollably. She did that for about 30 minutes straight. When she finally settled down, it wasn’t two minutes before she got up and expressed her joy all over again. She repeated this 30-to-two-minute cycle for the remainder of the day.
Undoubtedly, one of the greatest thrills that comes from our nature travels is seeing wild animals in their native habitats. But as we eco-tourists are painfully aware, those goose-bump shivers experienced while witnessing a grizzly bear fishing for salmon or a wolf hunt in Yellowstone National Park could possibly be costing the animals too much.