The battle against species extinctions is ethically fraught. As habitat diminishes, what is the purpose of conservation, and what role should zoos play?

By Maddison Connaughton.

Zoos, conservation and the fight for de-extinction

Western lowland gorillas in Melbourne Zoo.
Western lowland gorillas in Melbourne Zoo.
Credit: Oliver Gigacz

Housed in a sprawling enclosure at the centre of Melbourne Zoo there are five western lowland gorillas: Yuska, G-Anne, Otana, Kimya and her daughter Kanzi, who was born in March this year.

Spying one of these rare creatures through the tree line that rings the enclosure, a chill runs through your body. The gorilla pads across the grass on closed fists, at once human-like and completely alien. More than a million people flock to Melbourne Zoo each year to see these animals. In that moment it’s clear why – in the midst of our increasingly urban existence, living, breathing nature has an almost gravitational pull.

Hunting and disease have driven the western lowland gorilla to the brink of oblivion in its native central Africa. It is listed as “critically endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which notes that during the gorilla’s past three generations its numbers have fallen by 80 per cent.

The gorillas at Melbourne Zoo are part of a global breeding program that collaborates with 149 other institutions. On the surface it seems a noble pursuit – rescuing these creatures from the threat of extinction. Scratch below the surface, though, and the issue becomes far more complex. If the breeding program is successful, to where should western lowland gorillas return? Their habitat has been decimated by mining and logging, and the deadly threat of poaching is ever-present. Should we prop up a species if its only chance of survival is in captivity?

It’s these ethical quagmires of modern conservation that journalist M. R. O’Connor wades into in her book, Resurrection Science. “History is littered with our indifference,” O’Connor writes. “Dodo birds, great auks, 24-rayed sunstars.” Without intervention it’s likely the western lowland gorilla will join this list. However, modern conservationists are today taking a more active role than ever. From captive breeding to game reserves, genetic modification and cloning, no approach is without controversy but all speak to the desperate nature of the extinction crisis. “This era has been described as a new geological epoch in which humans are a force of nature,” O’Connor explains. “Called the Anthropocene, its Noahs are conservation biologists, people who dedicate their lives to saving species.”

One such person is Rachel Lowry, director of conservation and wildlife science for Zoos Victoria.

O’Connor might describe Lowry as an eco-pragmatist, someone who sees zoos and captive breeding playing a central role in fighting species loss. For her part, Lowry admits the ethical questions are always there. “I find it really challenging,” she says. “You’ve got to make sure that the justification is strong, that it’s done ethically.”

Ultimately though, Lowry believes the scale of the problem warrants human intervention. More than 800 Australian species are listed as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered; we lead the world in mammal extinction. “We tend to be considered a bit like an ICU unit at the zoo,” Lowry says. “As we’ve got this ‘sixth wave’ of mass extinctions at our doorstep, more and more species are being pushed into this ICU unit phase. Without captive breeding there’s little hope for these species, like the Baw Baw frog or the southern corroboree frog.”

To combat these losses, Lowry has developed a five-year conservation master plan. It’s bold, encompassing everything from training Italian Maremma sheepdogs to guard fledgling populations of eastern barred bandicoots to potentially establishing a Tasmanian devil population on the mainland. If successful, the plan would secure 20 of Australia’s most endangered species, with the end goal of re-establishing their populations outside the zoo. “If all we manage to achieve is to keep this beautiful animal behind a fence, then we haven’t recovered it, we haven’t got it back in the wild,” Lowry says.

Lowry’s focus on success in the wild, considering animals and their habitats collectively, reflects an evolution of zoo-based conservation. For critics of zoos, however, the money side of the equation has always been ethically problematic. The intractable reality is that much of this conservation research is funded by admission fees of those of us willing to pay to see Sumatran orang-utans, red pandas or western lowland gorillas in the flesh. “Zoos teach people that it is acceptable to interfere with animals and keep them locked up in captivity,” People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Australia’s Claire Fryer says. “For the money zoos spend to house a few hundred animals, they could help entire populations in the wild.”

Passing the gorilla enclosure at Melbourne Zoo, most people will stop to peer into the reinforced steel cages where the animals are held for health checks and the like. Noses against the glass, kids often ask their parents, “Why would they put the gorilla in there?” It does seem cruel maths, that some animals must lose their freedom so others can survive in the wild. From the sight of animals in captivity to live animal exports, we’re increasingly averse to the direct suffering humans inflict on animals. When it emerged earlier this year that Minnesotan dentist Walter Palmer killed Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe, the outrage was overwhelming. Palmer was a trophy hunter, someone who pays thousands of dollars for permission to kill big game. Instinctively, the idea that the life of one animal must be auctioned off to the highest bidder to fund the survival of others seems oxymoronic.

In Resurrection Science we meet Kes Hillman-Smith, a British-born zoologist, who fought to keep the northern white rhino alive in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Garamba National Park. Hillman-Smith’s story reveals just what a complex negotiation conservation is in the developing world. While we in the West may criticise African conservation practices out of genuine concern, we also do so from a position of privilege. Few of us will ever face the choice between saving a human life or an animal life.

For 24 years, Hillman-Smith and her rangers battled civil wars, political corruption and invasions of militia poachers, from Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army to the Janjaweed, sword-wielding horsemen who have wreaked havoc in Darfur. Proponents of big-game hunting argue it funds protection from these poaching threats, pointing out that the populations of threatened species have increased significantly in game reserves. There’s a point on which both critics and supporters can agree: the approach is a way to make these animals fit into our economy. Is this Darwinian capitalism, where species must have value or die out, right or wrong?

Today there are just four known northern white rhinos in existence. The animal’s best chance of survival is perhaps at San Diego Zoo. Not within any exhibit but in the Frozen Zoo, a collection of tissue samples from more than 1000 species. Held there are cryogenically preserved samples from 12 northern white rhinos. O’Connor explains that researchers hope to reprogram the rhino tissues into induced pluripotent stem cells. From these, rhino sperm and eggs could be made, diversifying the species’ meagre gene pool – a huge issue for animals surviving in such small numbers.

This work would be a huge breakthrough, a brave new world for threatened species such as the western lowland gorilla or even those that have already been driven to extinction – the Tasmanian tiger, passenger pigeon and woolly mammoth. Naturally, ethical quandaries remain: will the hope of de-extinction distract from the job of saving animals under threat today? Are we just being driven by human arrogance, which sees us exalt those characteristics that distinguish us from animals, to view human evolution as a march of progress?

For now , however, these are questions that remain firmly in the realm of theory – the project has ground to a halt. As O’Connor writes, “human patients desperately hoping to have children fund the field of assisted reproduction ... there’s no clear economic incentive to making northern white rhinos in the laboratory”.

At Melbourne Zoo, a lack of economic support for conservation is also the major obstacle. Thus far the zoo has only been able to secure a third of the $30 million needed to fund Lowry’s master plan. “I’d love to be working with species that are just vulnerable right now, but we don’t have the resources,” Lowry explains. “The first thing you do is try to stop the haemorrhaging. Get the situation under control.”

In light of this rapid depopulation of the natural world, O’Connor’s push for ethical consideration may seem slow-moving. However, as human control pushes ever deeper into the fabric of life, there are vital questions to consider. To draw on Lowry’s medical metaphor, can conservation ever really cure the disease or does it simply treat the symptoms?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 31, 2015 as "Animal pragmatism".

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Maddison Connaughton is a freelance journalist and former editor of The Saturday Paper.

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