Waves of extinction are rolling across the planet, and many species are on the brink of being lost forever. “I think you’re here because you know that we are now living in the midst of the most terrible … loss, most of which is caused by humans,” said Professor Deborah Bird Rose.
Ethnobiologist Dr Rose was chairing the panel discussion Waves of Extinction at the Festival. She is the author of a book on dingos, Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction, and the members of the panel are experts on the philosophy, ethics, and evolution of animal species – and what’s happening to them.
On one hand, it seems a big achievement to be the cause of the current worldwide crisis, considering that humans are still just another animal. Australian researcher Dr Suddendorf said many people like to think of humans as “extra special” in some way. “After all, we are the species running the zoos,” he quipped. He compares the psychological development of humans to other apes in his book The Gap: The Science That Separates Us from Other Animals.
But one of our more ‘special’ characteristics is not as flattering as some would like. Co-operating to kill a member of our own kind is a trait shared only by our closest surviving relative, the common chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes). Dr Suddendorf speculates this willingness to commit genocide may be a reason for the disappearance of the other ancient upright-walking hominids, and why the remaining species of humans survived and flourished.
He said while we do share emotions such as grief and empathy with other species, the thing that really does set us apart from other animals is our ability to consider multiple outcomes for the future. Since humans are now largely in control of the earth and its other inhabitants, this foresight means we are morally responsible to “co-ordinate our actions to stop these disasters from happening”.
But which species do we choose to save, and why? Cultural significance can play a major role in promoting the conservation efforts of one species over another. Many flagship causes are dedicated to iconic or otherwise “charismatic” animals, such as orang-utans, elephants and tigers. Anthropologist Dr Eben Kirksey, author of The Multispecies Salon (an experimental collection of recipies, essays and artworks) said other less impressive creatures, such as ants, are not considered for protection and are often killed with impunity for no reason. However, this difference in popularity may not necessarily be wholly detrimental to other species.
“Caring for iconic creatures gives you an opportunity to raise empathy, and [for] people to become interested and care for an individual species,” said Dr Suddendorf. “And if you manage to protect the habitat, you save thousands of other species.”
Dr Kirksey agreed that preserving “multi-species communities” is a really important task. Now that we have chosen which animals to save, what happens next?
Every species of animal has different conservation issues, which makes a blanket scheme almost impossible to implement. There is one common aspect that can be found in many conservation projects, that of “violent care”. An example is the selective culling of predators or animals competing within the habitat, but also includes the dramatic interventions involved in breeding programs. The success of captive breeding of the Panamanian Golden Frog has surpassed all expectations. Yet Dr Kirksey said zoos are now selectively culling each generation of hatchlings to ensure the strength of species, while also keeping populations at a manageable level for the manmade facilities.
Dr Thom van Dooren, who researched multiple threatened bird species to produce Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction, cited the innovative conservation programs for the Whooping Crane in North America. New generations of cranes are taught their migratory flight paths by following a piloted ultra-lite plane. Every effort is made to ensure the birds do not imprint on the humans, including the workers dressing up in Whooping Crane costumes. However with the loss of wild adults to emulate, the female birds also have to be artificially inseminated with collected sperm because they don’t know how to identify an ideal mate.
While these processes will ensure the survival of the species, some people question whether the species are now fundamentally altered, and whether death would be preferable to an “artificial survival”.
But, asked Dr van Dooren, “How much death can we justify?”
With such heavy life and death decisions having to be made, it is easy to become pessimistic about the future. What can an individual human possibly do to help?
Perhaps we should stop looking to the exotic regions and species of the world. The session ends with Dr Kirksey suggesting that we could instead turn our attention to cultivating nature within the trampled urban environments of our own communities.
By remembering that every species is special and needed, even the smallest project can bring hope to the world’s biodiversity. As Dr Rose said, even ants have a reason for being.