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Sunday, May 31, 2015

An Ark With No Ararat

"We aren't arks, we're life rafts... with very limited seating."
-C. Peeling

"Should we not then ask ourselves whether some species, which have now become rare, and for the conservation of which cultural and scientific zoological gardens are making the greatest sacrifices with little marked success, are not doomed to disappear and whether man's interference in these cases is fully justified"

Walter Van den bergh, Breeding the Congo Peacock at the Royal Zoological Society of Antwerp

Zoos love the analogy of the Ark.  Sometimes, I think they're downright obsessed with it.  Glancing at my bookshelf, I can read the titles - The Modern Ark, The Overloaded Ark, The Stationary Ark, The Ark in the Park (two books - one a history of the Lincoln Park Zoo, the other of the Zoological Society of London), Ethics on the Ark, and, of course, Sailing with Noah.  There is the Amphibian Ark, devoted to the conservation of endangered amphibians, and ARKS is a record-keeping software used at many facilities.

The importance of the Ark has changed over time.  Initially, it represented what every zoo director craved above all else - a pair of everything, two of each animal in neatly organized displays, hopefully bearing offspring.  In this age of human-induced mass extinction, however, the Ark has taken on new meaning.  With habitat loss, over-exploitation, introduced species, and now the specter of global climate change, more and more species are finding survival in the wild to be impossible.

Some have already been declared Extinct the Wild, the category that the IUCN has placed between Extinct and Critically Endangered.  It means that there are specimens in zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, seed banks, or private collections, but none living out in  nature.  Species in this listing include the Guam rail and the Micronesian kingfisher, as well as the golden sifaka and the Alagoas curassow; the black softshell turtle is known from a single pool in a temple in Bangladesh.  More species are likely to join this list in the near future.  Lately, the dream has been to breed zoo animals in captivity, safe and secure until the magic day comes when we can reintroduce animals back into the wild.  But what if that day never comes?  What if the Ark is a ride that no one ever gets off of?

Being a conservation biologist is sort of like being a combat medic on a battlefield - there often is an element of triage involved.  Some species will do fine no matter what we do, some we probably can't save no matter what we do.  The question is, do the extinct in the wild species fall into this last category?

Some people would say "yes," including a decent number of animal rights' activists that I've spoken to.  To them, what is the purpose of keeping an species alive if it will only survive behind fences or safety glass in captivity?  Better, in their minds, to devote that money, those resources to other species that are still fighting for survival in the wild (such as it is).

The thing is, though, that some species have come back from extinction in the wild.  At least three species on the IUCN list - the scimitar-horned oryx, the Kihansi spray toad, and the Socorro dove - are being reintroduced at this time.  None of this would have been possible if we'd written off the captive populations and pulled the plug on them.  Same with previously extinct in the wild species, such as the red wolf, black-footed ferret, and California condor.  They only survive in the wild now because they survived in zoos earlier.  These species have all been reintroduced into the wild... of course, it helps that, for them, there was still a wild to be reintroduced into.  What if there wasn't?

Consider the birds of the Mariana Islands.  If efforts to relocate Guam birds on other islands failed (to be clear, we're in the hypothetical now - so far, the MAC program seems to be working), and the Guam rail and the Micronesian kingfisher would survive only in zoos and other breeding facilities like SCBI, should they still be saved?  Or should we give up?

My vote is an emphatic NO.  Just because we can't do anything to help the species now doesn't mean we won't be able to later on.  Maybe someday we'll find a way to remove the brown tree snake from Guam.  Maybe we'll find more islands that are better suited.  Maybe birds somehow find a way to adapt to life on Guam.  MAYBE we'd think of something.  As long as a species survives, we have options.  Once it goes extinct - not extinct in the wild, but extinct for real - we have none.*

*Unless we're going to go all Jurassic Park and start cloning... but I see that being quite some way down the road...

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