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?
We could be on the brink of a mass extinction — the Earth’s sixth — according to a paper published last year in the journal Nature. First author Anthony Barnosky, an integrative biologist at the University of California at Berkeley, says Earth has experienced five mass extinctions during the past 540 million years, and another extinction could be around the corner. During each of the five previous events, three-quarters or more of the world’s animal species died out. One of the mass extinctions — which occurred 65 million years ago — ended the dinosaurs.
Some say, however, that this isn’t much cause for alarm. Species have always come and gone over long periods of time; and given the five mass extinctions we’ve already had, it’s a natural event. But will this sixth one be a “different animal”?
Whether you’re an avid sportsman or purely a wildlife-watcher, it’s a fact that the animals, birds and fish you endeavor to see are “paid for” mostly by hunters. Those who engage in hunting, fishing and trapping are the major contributors to conservation funds in almost every state. Surprisingly, the monies animal-viewers and birdwatchers donate to conservation efforts rarely add up to even a third or a half of what hunters put into department of natural resources funds — even though watchers greatly outnumber them.
In my own state of Wisconsin, deer-hunting licenses and permits generated $22.7 million in revenue for the department of natural resources in 2010. And in most years, an excise tax on hunting equipment provides an additional $10 million to the state for wildlife management — in one case, supplying $400,000 to study and prepare for the likely arrival of a deadly bat disease. The problem is, however, that the number of hunters — along with anglers and trappers — is declining. And it promises to keep decreasing as the population ages.
So as the economy tightens, causing state and federal budgets for wildlife conservation to continue to be cut, and if younger people are not taking up hunting and fishing, where will future environmental monies come from?
About four years ago, the U.S. Geological Survey released a projection report stating that two-thirds of the world’s polar bears would be gone by 2050. Their numbers would plummet, stated the report, due to shrinking summer sea ice caused by greenhouse gases. Since that time, images of polar bears have graced water bottles, T-shirts and tote bags. It’s now widely accepted that Ursus maritimus is the poster child for climate change.
We also know of other species in great peril — mostly because of media attention to them. According to the Chinese zodiac, 2010 was the Year of the Tiger, and last November the International Tiger Forum was held in St. Petersburg in the Russian Federation. As the world’s first global summit focused on saving a single species from extinction, the event received widespread news coverage.
Because their likenesses appear on TV screens and spearhead conservation campaigns, chances are that even if you don’t live in tiger or polar bear habitats — where it would at least be possible for you to run into them during your daily life — you would miss them if they disappeared from our planet. But will you mourn the extinction of other species living today if you’ve never heard of them?
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.