Another Rush for the Ark

The Last Extinction, edited by Les Kaufman and Ken Mallory, The MIT Press, 1986. 

TheLastExtinctionIt wasn’t so long ago that for John Muir and the likes of him, it sufficed to protect wilderness because it was “Godful,” a beautiful “celestial city.”  But modern conservationists, Rutgers biologist David Ehrenfeld laments in his contribution to The Last Extinction, seek to preserve wilderness primarily to protect “a potential source of new drugs to cure cancer, of hydrocarbons and fuel oils from plants, of natural rubber, of genes for insect resistance of crop plants,” and so on, intoning the whole litany of “useful” purposes wilderness serves for humankind.  This is dangerously close to adopting the ideological rationale of the enemy, Ehrenfeld says, echoing the sentiments of the deep ecology movement. One supposes that for him the enemy consists of developers and industrialists, exploiters of the natural environment.

As an alternative to this utilitarian approach to conservation, Ehrenfeld urges us toward stewardship of the planet, an ancient concept that most can be comfortable with.  But in so doing he seems inadvertently to admonish and contradict some of the other contributors to The Last Extinction. Les Kaufman and Ken Mallory have brought together seven authors with conflicting styles and viewpoints in this wide-ranging, uneven, sometimes clumsy discussion of the extinction crisis. The result is a hodgepodge of opinions in a book that never quite hangs together.

Kaufman, a curator at the New England Aquarium, reminds us that plant and animal species worldwide are vanishing at a rate approaching and possibly exceeding that of the Late Cretaceous, when all dinosaur lineages abruptly ceased. This mass extinction, he says, demands immediate attention as one of the most serious problems facing the world today.

Most environmentalists could not agree more. Just to make sure we get the point, though, the editors include an entire chapter devoted to paleontological evidence of mass extinctions. David Jablonski concludes that the current extinction of species is not only occurring earlier (by half) than it ought to be in the usual 26-million-year cycle, it is also being caused primarily by humans. Good information – but for conservationists, merely an update on old news.

The next chapter, focusing at length on the endangered Amazon, reflects the book’s spotty coverage of its topic, neglecting vast bioregions of the world in favor of an almost exclusively Western Hemisphere approach.  “Just as the Garden of Eden was given to Adam and Eve to use,” Ghillean T. Prance writes about the disappearing rainforests, “the Amazon comprises a wealth of useful species that we cannot ignore.

This is exactly the sort of materialism that Ehrenfeld warns against. Even so, the motive to secure a potentially infinite supply of medicine, food, and fuel plants becomes compellingly clear in light of the vast number of animal and plant species that stand to be lost in the spreading destruction.  The question, then, is how to allow for essential development while maintaining the integrity of fragile rainforest ecosystems. The answer, Prance says, “is not to create a vast biological reserve as a playground for naturalists and rich tourists,” but to practice a balance of conservation and utilization. This means exploring the rainforests to learn “as much as we can from what is left of their indigenous culture.”  It means that botanists and zoologists must conduct an urgent inventory to discover the “useful” native plants and animals: capybara, turtle, deer, tapir, agouti, and others. It means developing sustainable agricultural systems, relying more heavily on trees and perennial crops than on exposing areas of fragile soil to the leaching, compacting power of tropical rains. The emphasis of all programs must be on maintaining diversity. Otherwise, mass extinction will spread at an irreversible rate.

A well-written but philosophically disturbing part of The Last Extinction comes toward the end of the book: a discussion about the role of zoos and aquariums as repositories for genetic material during the coming centuries of habitat upheaval.

In a chapter entitled “Riders of the Last Ark,” Thomas J. Foose of the Minnesota Zoological Gardens observes that the “demographic winter” now settling in will last anywhere from 200 to 1,000 years.  This will be a period characterized by enormous, uncontrolled human population growth, resulting in the devastation of wildlands, the disappearance of wildlife, and the disruption of ecosystems. We will be unable to prevent the destruction of many habitats; so zoos and aquariums, Foose argues, must serve as animal and plant refugee camps. These institutions must equip themselves to preserve examples of animals and plants against the day when their lost habitats can be restored. But since it is neither physically nor economically feasible to keep captive and alive all the species whose habitats are being destroyed, Foose maintains, it will be necessary to preserve them in another way: as germ plasm in a “frozen zoo.” The raw genetic material of as many animals and plants as possible must be preserved.

This is an extremist concept that demonstrates the severity of the extinction crisis, and Foose argues it well. Genetic diversity is vital to the survival of species. Large habitats allow for large gene pools, but “gene pools are being converted into gene puddles.” Already, remaining wildlands have become virtual “megazoos,” islands of unspoiled habitat in an expanding sea of human settlement. These megazoos are important because of the genetic diversity they harbor. This is why the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums has developed a “species survival plan,” which has species coordinators deciding which plants and animals may board the ark of survival. When there is not enough space, hard decisions will have to be made about whether to preserve a species ore let it go—a decision Foose and others call euthanasia.

“Many zoo professionals believe euthanasia will be essential if the conservation responsibilities of captive facilities are to be fulfilled,” Foose says. But equally appropriate and less euphemistic would be the war-related term “triage,” the allocation of treatment to disaster victims according to a priority system designed to maximize the number of survivors. This is what Foose and his colleagues are advocating.

Ultimately one has to wonder to what extent this view is wound up with the author’s intimate involvement with and faith in zoos. After all, they are by no means universally accepted by conservationists. To some, the mere presence of zoos encourages the perception that we can safely allow the disappearance of natural habitats while maintaining zoos as our arks. The reassurance this notion offers is deceptive, in that it allows us to be complacent in the face of continuing environmental destruction.

Conservationists will have to face this issue squarely. Have we appointed our zoos and aquariums to act as arks? Can we believe that after a thousand years the “frozen zoos” will be able to release re-constituted species into rejuvenated wildlands? The answers to these questions are based on countless assumptions that must be sorted out. The public must take responsibility for decisions that will shape the environment of the next millennium.

This article appeared in Sierra, March/April 1987.