October 30, 2015

The bones of a woolly mammoth.

The bones of a Woolly Mammoth. Credit: Joseph Martinez / Flickr Creative Commons

Pandas are adorable. Just look at them going down a slide. Or playing with their zookeeper. Or trying to climb a tree.

Cuteness aside, zookeepers and conservationists will go great lengths to make sure there’s a viable panda population. And it doesn’t stop with these adorable creatures.

Take the example of the Kihansi Spray Toad. It’s rare, but it isn’t cute, cuddly, or adorable. However, there was something special about it.

“It existed [only] in a single waterfall in Southern Tanzania. And it went extinct in the wild because of a hydroelectric dam, partially funded by the World Bank, that was going to provide a third of the electricity to Tanzania, which was desperately needed. And in order to try and prevent the species from going out, as an insurance policy, they brought 500 of these toads in from the wild and that ended up being the only toads that survived,” explains Maura O’Connor, author of Resurrection Science: Conservation, De-Extinction, and the Precarious Future of Wild Things.

Another example? The Northern White Rhino. When O’Connor started her research there were seven in the wild, when she finished there were only five. Three of those were living in a preserve in Kenya.

“[They] are protected 24 hours a day by armed guards, they have drones that try to monitor the perimeter of the preserve, and they have a canine anti-poaching unit.”

But there’s a more out-there avenue that some scientists are looking at: "resurrecting" the animals. Pluripotent stem cells have already been extracted from these rhinos, the hope being that these stem cells could be used to develop sperm and egg cells. Once these cells were developed, the rhinos could possibly be brought back in a lab through in-vitro fertilization.

All this effort and work of these well-meaning conservationists (O’Connor doesn’t hesitate to call them heroes) can have an air of fatalism about it. As thousands of species go extinct every year and the world becomes more polluted, less green, and more urban, saving a few pandas in a couple zoos might seem like a drop in the bucket. But O’Connor thinks it’s better this than nothing at all. Better zoos and rhino-protecting drones and clone research than the eradication of every wild species.

“Most of the stories I’ve been writing about come down to humans not being able to or willing to give space other species the space they need to survive. And to me, that’s certainly one of the things that could change… It’s something that us as a society have to really be willing to do, and I think part of that is figuring out do we really care about this idea of wilderness and wild things even if it’s an abstraction to our everyday lives.”

Coverage of our environmental and sustainability reporting comes, in part, from The Kendeda Fund.

Green, pandas, Maura O'Connor, WWF, cloning, conservation

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