Jurassic Convention

The ecological case against cloning endangered and extinct species

| May/June 2001

Recently, a cow in Iowa named Bessie gave birth to a gaur, an endangered oxlike animal native to Asia. This miracle was achieved by injecting gaur cells, complete with their DNA, into hollowed-out cow eggs, then electrically fusing the eggs and DNA together.

Already there are plans afoot for more cross-species surrogate motherhood. The bucardo, a Pyrenean mountain goat, became extinct in January 2000, when the last of its kind was put out of its lonely misery by a falling tree. Cells were taken from the corpse, and the Massachusetts-based company Advanced Cell Technology is planning to clone the creature back to life. The panda is next on the list for rejuvenation, and there's talk of trying to bring back the Tasmanian tiger, a wolflike animal that lost its last grip on survival in the 1930s. Even the prehistoric mammoth is being considered for a possible comeback. It's a fascinating scientific gimmick, a perfect example of doing something because we can. We should leave it at that.

But we won't. There's excited talk of cloning and genetic engineering offering a marvelous boost to wildlife conservation, a high-tech solution to our tendency to drive plant and animal species to extinction. This is tripe, for the cloning of endangered species completely contradicts the spirit and practice of conservation. Conservation isn't just about saving a particular species, it's about reducing our destructive impact on natural systems that are in increasing danger of being unable to sustain themselves, and ultimately, of sustaining us.

Wildlife conservation is a precarious affair, because failure is forever. It has, quite literally, a deadline. Sometimes that deadline is easy to see, other times it's not. In the 1980s, it became clear that whales were struggling to survive and new laws were put into place. In the early 1990s, the plight of the elephant came to the world's attention and was reasonably successfully dealt with. We've recently discovered that the tiger is in even more danger than we'd previously thought, and wheels are beginning to turn to keep them going. Yet for every headline species that captures our heart, there are many more that don't make it.

But conservation takes time and money. It requires careful management and planning, and it involves sacrifices. It demands that the long-term view take precedence over, or is at least built into, the short term.

Which brings us back to Bessie. Suddenly, for the first time ever, we've got an alternative to conservation. It's only a tiny crack at present, but science will work to widen it. What's the point in putting all that effort into looking after ecosystems if we've got the ability to clone extinct species back into existence? Just think of what this makes possible—we can keep on crashing our way across the planet, doing what we want, and whenever some species starts to disappear as a result, we've got the technology to keep the species going.

Cloning endangered species is a classic case of lazy science that will spare us all the bother of preventing extinction. However much its supporters may protest that cloning will only be used to complement conservation, to step in when conservation has failed, the day will come when the financial benefits of, say, clearing a rainforest will outweigh the costs of cloning the endangered species within. Someone will be prepared to pay for it, and the rot will have begun.