‘De-Extinction’ Is a Bad Idea Because We Can’t Even Take Care of What We’ve Got

Bringing extinct animals back from the dead could hurt existing species, says a new report.

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Feb 27 2017, 4:00pm

Because of climate change and other pressures, species are estimated to be going extinct at a 1,000 times the natural rate. What if we could bring some of them back from the dead? 

Efforts to resurrect the woolly mammoth, for example, have been making headlines for years. Some scientists say they believe it will be done, although there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical, at least in the near term.

Before we start resurrecting extinct species—whether they're long-dead or recently wiped out—we should focus on the ones we've got. According to a new study in Nature Ecology & Evolution, it would cost millions to reintroduce and maintain a "de-extinct" species, a cost that would stretch conservation budgets so much, it would threaten existing populations.

"On the surface of it, de-extinction could lead to biodiversity gain," Carleton University's Joseph Bennett, the lead author of the study, told me. You've got one more plant or animal back on the planet. But there's an issue of resources—you're taking one step forward, and ten steps back, he said. "We've got a huge biodiversity crisis on this Earth, obviously, and there's no shortage of species that need conservation attention and resources."

De-extinction is still a faraway concept, even if it's the source of a lot of excited chatter right now. No one's been able to bring back long-dead animals (including woolly mammoths) yet, though if scientists could snag some DNA before the species goes extinct, it seems possible: the Pyrenean Ibex, a Spanish wild goat that went extinct in 2000, was successfully re-created using a surrogate goat mother. One was born in 2003—it lived for seven minutes.

It would be a huge financial undertaking to expand de-extinct populations in captivity, reintroduce them into the wild, beat away invasive species and maintain populations, Bennett said. Although some have argued that resurrected woolly mammoth herds or elephant-mammoth hybrids could save the Arctic, by controlling permafrost and having a cooling effect, this study suggests that bringing back certain species could put other living animals at risk.

"If you use those same resources on living species," he said, "you could save many more species from extinction."

His team examined the ramifications of de-extinction in New Zealand and New South Wales specifically, because those two areas have gathered extensive data about their most threatened species—about 700 in New Zealand and 400 in New South Wales—in order to come up with plans to save them. 

"For every one of their threatened species, they have a prescription," Bennett said. The researchers made a list of 16 species (of a possible 99) that have recently gone extinct in the two areas, based on how easily they could make predictions on what they would eat and where they would live. (All the extinct species in this study vanished within the last 1,000 years or so.) 

The researchers matched prescriptions to analyze the cost of helping endangered species, versus the cost of reintroducing ones that have disappeared.

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So how much would this actually cost per year?

It all depends on the species: plants are a lot cheaper (in the tens of thousands), and bigger animals most expensive (in the tens of millions), according to the paper. For the little bush moa, a flightless bird in New Zealand that's estimated to have gone extinct about 500 years ago, Bennett's study places the conservative cost estimate at about US$240,000 a year.

The reality is that the ecosystems of most extinct species have changed since the plants or animals disappeared, so they'd have a hard time fitting into the new reality—the ecosystem would either change and put current species at risk, or it would stay in its altered state and the reintroduced species would be threatened.

Take the woolly mammoth. Most of them died out some 10,000 years ago (a much longer time span than the species included in this study). The woolly mammoth shaped the face of the Arctic tundra when it was alive. If it was to come back tomorrow, it would find the tundra to be vastly different.

"Genetic technologies are moving very quickly," Bennett said, but there are still cultural, ethical, financial and environmental questions to consider. "There are reasons for people to do things such as de-extinction. I would have to ask them, 'What could you do with the millions of dollars you're spending on these things? How many threatened species could you save?'

"It's better to spend the money on the living than the dead."

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