Ever since I watched the TEDx DeExtinction event in March 2013, I’ve been thinking about how deextinction efforts need to consider the history of reintroductions if they are to be successful. I published a Viewpoint piece in Bioscience in September 2013 with some of those thoughts. Because of that publication and putting my opinions into the scholarly conversation, in the last couple of months, I’ve had the chance to talk with a couple journalists covering deextinction.
The June 2014 issue of Bioscience included “Extinction is forever … or is it?” by Leslie Ogden (available OpenAccess). When I talked to Leslie, I stressed the need to consider the destination of these animals being brought back. Because they will be going somewhere, and that somewhere probably has people in it, deextinction moves from a scientific question to a cultural question. Here’s the section of the article where Leslie talks about my work on reintroduction histories:
Reintroduction from captivity of organisms extinct in the wild already has precedents and an institutional basis in guidelines by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Spanning the breach from reintroduction to de-extinction may be only a matter of time. Dolly Jørgensen, an environmental historian in the Department of Ecology and Environmental science at Umeå University, Sweden, who wrote about reintroduction and de-extinction in a 2013 issue of BioScience(doi:10.1093/bioscience/63.9.719), thinks that we need to look to history. Her research is focused on examining the history of the reintroduction to Sweden of the beaver, a species that was extinct in most of Europe by the end of the 1800s. She also studies the history of the musk ox, which was reintroduced from Greenland after being absent in Scandinavia for about 10,000 years. With media attention focused on the front end of the de-extinction debate (the making of the animal), Jørgensen (amused that she shares a name with the first cloned mammal), thinks we cannot ignore other aspects of the process. “If it’s ever going to be more than just a monster on display, then we have to think that it’s going to gosomewhere.” Jørgensen thinks that it is important to examine the pitfalls of reintroductions of the recent past. “If you look at cases where predators have tried to be reintroduced following periods of local extinction—like the lynx in Scotland and wolves in Europe—what you see is that it’s a very contested space,” she says.
For the European beaver, remnant populations of the decimated species existed in small pockets in several countries, one of which was Norway. A passionate county museum director, Eric Festin, had the idea to repopulate an area named Beaver River Valley (Bjurälvsdalen in Swedish) with its long-missing namesake. The reintroduction of less than 100 beavers between 1922 and 1940 has resulted in more than 100,000 beavers now, which Jørgensen says makes it the most successful reintroduction ever. But the consequences include the beavers’ habit of damming, which creates newly flooded areas, which, in turn, has an impact on landowners. There are also conflicts with forestry, “because beavers like trees too,” says Jørgensen. It’s not all bad, she says, but reintroductions have both positive and negative outcomes that may not be foreseen. “You have to be dynamic when a species is actually successful, because you may end up with a problem,” she says. “History can be an example to look to, though not necessarily a guide.” And whether or not we can achieve—or want to achieve—de-extinction, says Jørgensen “is more than just a scientific question; it’s a cultural question too.”
I was happy to help Leslie get permission to reproduce a great picture of the first reintroduction of beaver in Sweden alongside this section. I think it shows the cultural work of reintroduction in action.
I also had the opportunity to be interviewed for the radio program “Undoing forever” by Britt Wray, which was aired as part of the Canadian Broadcast Company series Ideas on 19 June 2014 (the audio is available to listen to online). This was my first real radio interview: I got to go to the SVT Radio station and sit in a studio with a headset and mic and technician in the next room while Britt and her production crew sat in Canada. It was great!
One of my quotes is in the opening sequence: “We need to be talking about, oh, not just technically could make it or not, but: Where’s it going to go? What are going to be the challenges? How are people going understand this?” Then my part of the interview starts just after the 43 minute mark of the program. I wanted to stress that while bringing a species back to life may sound like a wonderful idea from afar, we have to look at the social and cultural issues that appear locally. There are always challenges to living with/near animals. Environmental philosopher Thom van Dooren also appears in the program immediately after me. He stressed the need to mourn extinct animals in order to be able to learn from mistakes.
This particular program was heavily weighted toward the passenger pigeon because several of the scientists interviewed are directly involved in that research. As I listened to their comments in the program about the billions of passenger pigeons that once flew in the US, I couldn’t help but think of all the problems they would cause today. Do scientists really think there would be a place in the US for huge flocks of birds to go? I don’t. I think they would end up being labelled pests and efforts would be taken to greatly limit their spread. It wouldn’t matter that they had once been extinct and all kinds of time and money had been spent to bring them back. This is the reality of reintroduction: people are perfectly happy with animals as long as they don’t get in the way.