In recent weeks, San Diego Zoo’s “Frozen Zoo” has been widely publicized in international press. The Frozen Zoo constitutes a hoard of sperm, egg and flesh samples from over 10,000 individual animals belonging to 1,000 different species and subspecies; all frozen with a view to re-establish extinct or threatened animals using cutting-edge stem cell technology.
The zoo says that the DNA bank may be used to prevent critically endangered animals from becoming extinct or even to re-establish species already thought to be lost forever. Critics of the project have scathingly dismissed the project as “basically rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic” and said that, while it might be fun for geneticists, there are far more pressing issues to focus on in the name of conservation. This critique, coupled with the difficulty in establishing viable genetic populations, while avoiding inbreeding, with small groups of animals has led to suggestions that the project may be doomed to failure.
Does Frozen Zoo Miss the Point?
However, even if the practicalities of bringing species back from the dead were mastered and viable populations were possible, the project categorically fails to address the root cause of species extinction and reduces the sentient individual animals to nothing more than genetic vehicles for their species. This further discredits suggestions that the project will have a long-term positive impact on vital conservation efforts.
For example, San Diego Zoo is said to be using the Frozen Zoo in an attempt to prevent the extinction of the northern white rhino; a tragedy thought to be almost inevitable within the next ten years without intervention. But without effectively bringing an end to the poaching of the rhino in its natural habitat, the zoo’s efforts appear to be something of a thankless task. Individual rhinos born of the Frozen Zoo will either spend their entire lives in captivity to protect them from a grizzly fate in the wild or there is every chance they will suffer that grizzly fate if released. Either way, it is difficult to consider either of these outcomes a roaring success for conservation efforts.
Species Are Important, But So is the Suffering of Individuals
Extinction of species driven by hunting and habitat destruction is arguably caused because the lives of the animals, and the wider environment, are not valued to the extent that they should be. There are complex factors which influence environmental degradation and, of course, it is too simplistic a stance to suggest that just caring more is the key to successful conservation. But caring about and valuing the lives and habitats of other living beings is certainly a start.
If successful, the Frozen Zoo may allow us to rest a little easier in the belief that a species has been saved from extinction, but it also encourages us to forget that species are made up of individual animals who all want to live. The Frozen Zoo perhaps encourages us to care about species, but not about the individuals who make up that species. This is important because it is individuals, not species, who can suffer.
Individual elephants who suffer horribly when their tusks are sawn off will not be helped by the Frozen Zoo; they need our help right now. Individual baby monkeys who struggle to cope physically and emotionally when they are snatched from their mothers to be sold into the pet trade will not be helped by the Frozen Zoo; they need our help right now. Individual tigers hunted to fuel the desire for their fur or their body parts will not have their very real suffering prevented by the Frozen Zoo; they need our help right now.
Real Conservation Happens On The Ground, Not In A Test Tube
Devoted and brave conservationists working on the ground to save animals under threat are the ones who need our support. Rangers risking their own safety to protect animals and those individuals and local communities working to develop real and sustainable strategies for wildlife protection are the ones who need our support. Real conservation does not happen in a lab in a place far-removed from the root cause of the problem, but right in the thick of it. Real conservation happens in the places where the needs of animals, the environment and people are truly understood, valued and taken seriously.
We can all help to lend a hand to the animals of the world by learning how our consumption habits endanger animals across the world. Consider the impact that growing feed for livestock has on the rainforests of South America and learn about how palm oil production in Indonesia drives the extinction of orangutans. While we might not all have the chance to work on the ground protecting animals habitats, we can all help to save these places with our food choices.
After all, if we resurrect species at the Frozen Zoo, where will all these animals go if their native habitats have been destroyed? It is real world conservation projects that need our support, especially seeing that a solution to the conservation challenges we and those we share this planet with face will certainly not be found in a test tube.
Lead image source: Raymorris/Flickr