DE­CID­ING WHETHER TO BRING BACK EX­TINCT SPECIES

DE­CID­ING WHETHER TO BRING BACK EX­TINCT SPECIES

In Flight Magazine - - IN THIS ISSUE - { TEXT: GWENLLIAN IACONA, POST­DOC­TORAL RE­SEARCH FEL­LOW, THE UNI­VER­SITY OF QUEENS­LAND, AND IADINE CHADÈS, LEADER OF THE CON­SER­VA­TION DE­CI­SIONS TEAM AND SE­NIOR RE­SEARCH SCI­EN­TIST, CSIRO / WWW.THECONVERSATION.COM IM­AGES © IS­TOCK­PHOTO.COM }

De-ex­tinc­tion – the sci­ence of re­viv­ing species that have been lost – has moved from the realm of sci­ence-fic­tion to some­thing that is now nearly fea­si­ble. We may soon be able to re­vive some types of lost mam­mals, birds or frogs through de-ex­tinc­tion tech­nolo­gies. But just be­cause we can, does it mean we should? And what might the en­vi­ron­men­tal and con­ser­va­tion im­pacts be if we did?

Prom­i­nent con­ser­va­tion bi­ol­o­gist Stu­art Pimm has been one of the vo­cal op­po­nents of de-ex­tinc­tion be­cause, among other con­cerns, with­out an an­swer to “Where do we put them?” – and to the fur­ther ques­tion: “What changed in their orig­i­nal habi­tat that may have con­trib­uted to their ex­tinc­tion in the first place?” – ef­forts to bring back species are a colos­sal waste.

Th­ese are valid con­cerns, and dif­fi­cult to con­sider in light of the many com­pet­ing fac­tors in­volved. We’ve re­cently out­lined a de­lib­er­ate way to tackle this prob­lem. Our new paper shows that an approach known as “de­ci­sion sci­ence” can help ex­am­ine the fea­si­bil­ity of de-ex­tinc­tion and its likely im­pact on ex­ist­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal and species man­age­ment pro­grams.

Ap­plied to the ques­tion of pos­si­ble de-ex­tinc­tion pro­grams in New Zealand, this approach showed that it would take money away from man­ag­ing ex­tant (still alive) species, and may lead to other species go­ing ex­tinct.

SOLV­ING COM­PLEX PROB­LEMS

The po­ten­tial to re­verse species ex­tinc­tion is ex­cit­ing from both a sci­ence and a cu­rios­ity per­spec­tive. But there is also great con­cern that in the pas­sion­ate rush to im­ple­ment new tech­nol­ogy, we don’t prop­erly con­sider en­vi­ron­men­tal, eco­nomic and so­cial is­sues.

Bal­anc­ing th­ese mul­ti­ple ob­jec­tives re­quires de­ci­sion mak­ers to un­der­stand how var­i­ous project end­points re­late to all the dif­fer­ent project goals.

De­ci­sion sci­ence meth­ods sim­plify com­plex prob­lems into parts that de­scribe the ben­e­fit, cost and fea­si­bil­ity of the dif­fer­ent pos­si­ble solutions. They al­low for “ap­ples to ap­ples” com­par­isons to be made about dif­fer­ent but es­sen­tial as­pects of the projects be­ing con­sid­ered.

DE­CI­SION SCI­ENCE IN AC­TION

When ap­plied to de-ex­tinc­tion projects, de­ci­sion sci­ence lets re­searchers:

• Com­pare dif­fer­ent pos­si­ble out­comes of de-ex­tinc­tion ap­proaches

• Bet­ter un­der­stand fu­ture ex­pected costs and ben­e­fits, and

• See im­pacts of us­ing de-ex­tinc­tion tech­nol­ogy on other species that we care about.

Be­tween them, New Zealand and New South Wales are home to more than 1,100 threat­ened species of con­ser­va­tion con­cern.

Over the past decade their man­age­ment agen­cies have built on a de­ci­sion sci­ence approach to pri­ori­tise their con­ser­va­tion ef­forts, and in­crease the num­ber of species they are able to put on the road to re­cov­ery.

New Zealand in par­tic­u­lar is a prime can­di­date for con­sid­er­ing de-ex­tinc­tion be­cause they have had many re­cent ex­tinc­tions. Th­ese lost species fit many of the cri­te­ria for species ap­pro­pri­ate for de-ex­tinc­tion tech­nolo­gies.

A re­cent study took the process that was de­vel­oped to rank New Zealand species ac­cord­ing to pri­or­ity for ac­tion, and

in­cluded 11 pos­si­ble can­di­dates for de-ex­tinc­tion in the rank­ing process. Th­ese were birds, frogs and plants, in­clud­ing the lit­tle Bush moa, Wait­omo frog and Laugh­ing owl. By ap­ply­ing a de­ci­sion sci­ence process, the au­thors found that adding th­ese species to the man­age­ment work­list would re­duce their abil­ity to ad­e­quately fund up to three times the num­ber of cur­rently man­aged species, and es­sen­tially could lead to ad­di­tional species go­ing ex­tinct.

The study also showed that pri­vate agen­cies wish­ing to spon­sor the re­turn of res­ur­rected ex­tinct species into the wild, could in­stead use the money to fund con­ser­va­tion of over eight times as many species, po­ten­tially sav­ing them from ex­tinc­tion.

Cru­cially, this study could not ex­am­ine the ini­tial costs of us­ing ge­netic tech­nol­ogy to res­ur­rect ex­tinct species, which is un­known but likely to be sub­stan­tial. If it could have in­cluded such costs, de-ex­tinc­tion would have come out as an even less ef­fi­cient op­tion.

COULD DE-EX­TINC­TION EVER BE THE RIGHT OP­TION?

The New Zealand ex­am­ple is not a par­tic­u­larly rosy pic­ture, but it may not al­ways be the case that de-ex­tinc­tion is a ter­ri­ble idea for con­ser­va­tion.

Hy­po­thet­i­cally, there are sit­u­a­tions where the nov­elty and ex­cite­ment of a de-ex­tinct species could act as a “flag­ship species” and ac­tu­ally at­tract public in­ter­est or fund­ing to a con­ser­va­tion project.

There also is an in­ter­est­ing phe­nom­e­non where even just the pos­si­bil­ity of hav­ing a man­age­ment ac­tion such as de-ex­tinc­tion may change how con­ser­va­tion prob­lems are for­mu­lated.

Con­ser­va­tion man­age­ment cur­rently aims to do the best it can, while op­er­at­ing un­der the con­straint that bio­di­ver­sity is a non-re­new­able re­source. With this con­straint we can ap­ply a the­ory that is used for man­ag­ing the ex­trac­tion of non-re­new­able re­sources like oil or di­a­monds to de­ter­mine the best strat­egy for man­age­ment. How­ever, if ex­tinc­tion was no longer for­ever, the prob­lem could be con­sid­ered as one that would be man­ag­ing a re­new­able re­source, like trees or fish.

Of course, the abil­ity to re­vive species is nowhere near as sim­ple as re-grow­ing trees, and a species be­ing re­vived does not nec­es­sar­ily equate to con­ser­va­tion. But chang­ing the way that con­ser­va­tion man­agers think about the prob­lem could present con­ser­va­tion gains in ad­di­tion to losses.

The­o­ret­i­cally, dif­fer­ent meth­ods may be used for con­ser­va­tion ben­e­fit and there may be dif­fer­ent strate­gies to pro­duce the best out­comes. For ex­am­ple, species that could eas­ily be de-ex­tinct may get less fund­ing at­ten­tion than the ones for which the de-ex­tinc­tion tech­nol­ogy isn’t avail­able, or are too costly to pro­duce.

This re­search does not ad­vo­cate for or against de-ex­tinc­tion. Rather, it pro­vides strate­gies to deal with al­ter­na­tives from the start with a clear rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the trade-offs. This work aims to step back and take a re­al­is­tic look at the im­pli­ca­tions of new tech­nol­ogy, in­clud­ing its costs and its risks, within the con­text of other con­ser­va­tion ac­tions. De­ci­sion the­ory helps to do just that.

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