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Here’s why laboratory science alone cannot solve the extinction crisis

Read time: 6 mins
12 Feb 2021
Here’s why laboratory science alone cannot solve the extinction crisis

The ‘endangered’ giant Galapagos tortoise known only from the Galápagos archipelago was threatened with hunting and feral dogs. However, today, due to conservation efforts such as captive breeding and a ban on hunting, their numbers are going up. [Image Credits: CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

According to scientists, the sixth mass extinction event — defined by a loss of about three-fourths of all existing species on Earth over a short geological period — is already underway. It says that the species richness that we consider to be ‘normal’ today is, in fact, low compared to fossil records from times humans were not around. If the current rates of extinction continue, the study claims, the next mass extinction is only three centuries away.

While the previous five mass extinction events resulted in the wiping out of several species that lived on Earth, the sixth one is different. On the one hand, there is constant media coverage for the decline of flagship species like the pangolin, the polar bear, and the orangutans. Our constant hunger and need for hunting have already resulted in the extinction of the New Zealand grayling, the dodo, and the passenger pigeon. There could be more that are already possibly extinct, and many are facing a constant threat of disappearance. Although we have classified many species as ‘threatened’, ‘endangered’ or ‘extinct’ based on their abundance, we haven’t done that for all! We don’t even know of all the species that exist on this planet, their rates of disappearances or their complete role in the ecosystem to understand the extinction process.

Science has some answers to this end and points to preventing deforestation, reducing global consumption of natural resources, conserving half the Earth and more. However, the science of nature is complicated by nature’s interconnectedness, and we do not understand all the ongoing natural processes. Biogeography — the variation that species and ecosystems show in geographic space and time — plays a massive role in how natural processes play out. Public education of biodiversity loss could help us better understand its impact on the ecology of a region and encourage action. With public participation, one can expect better policies and approaches towards tackling it.

The good news, however, is that all hope to combat the extinction crisis is not lost. Based on their understanding of what factors cause the loss of individual species and their role in the environment, scientists are now using genetic tools like CRISPR, which won the 2020 Nobel Prize, to revive some of the extinct species. These tools modify the DNA obtained from the closest relatives of extinct species to produce animals that could play the role of the extinct species. This process is called de-extinction. Several experiments over the years have now made this a reality! The extinct Woolly Mammoth’s genes have been transferred into Asian Elephants to create a whole new hybrid animal that scientists hypothesise can reverse some damages of climate change. Another popular example is a clone created from the extinct Pyrenean ibex, a sort of wild goat.

Human lives are intertwined with biological services, like pollination, soil nutrition, and providing clean water and oxygen by many animals and plants. Traditional knowledge among people has led to stories, now backed by science, of symbiotic human and wildlife relationships that need to be preserved. One of the critical aspects of solving this biodiversity crisis is understanding the links between humans and wildlife. A case in point is how restricting cattle grazing in a wetland in India reduced bird numbers. Such links must be kept in mind while trying to prevent species extinction. Although DNA modification could be a great tool to bring back extinct species, we must examine people-driven knowledge before setting up goals for big projects involving science and technology.

With dwindling funds, laboratory research is insufficient

A paucity of funds for scientific research in India has severely impaired several research institutions to sustain and support their staff. Hence, most scientific ecological studies underway in the country restrict themselves to taxonomic descriptions. Although such studies are important, they fail to contribute to the concept of ‘The Common Good’ of the people –– actions that maximise welfare, benefit and happiness of the larger society, the environment and the creatures that share the space. Therefore, science done for namesake instead of it being of any direct use or interest to the people might fail to invoke interest and thus fail to bring about a change.

Take, for example, amphibians — the species of interest in my research. While the rate of discovery of new species of amphibians is high in India, there is no estimate of the number of species that have disappeared even before being discovered! Additionally, there are hardly any studies based on fossil records that allow us to estimate extinct species. In light of this, how can we ever accurately calculate the extinction rates of these species or even predict which species will die out next? How will the country’s loss be accounted for when India continues to contribute to the ongoing global extinction crisis and cannot even understand it thoroughly?

I grew up in the small town of Chandrapur, Maharashtra, surrounded by dry, deciduous forests. I enjoyed my childhood, playing with whatever was available in our backyard, which opened out into the jungles of central India. My playmates at the time included ants, birds and grasshoppers. With changing seasons, the wildlife I saw also changed. The onset of monsoon invited scorpions and snakes into my room — a place we all shared for warmth — much to my mother’s disgust.

Often, I heard stories of villagers killing a snake or hundreds of frogs trampled under the wheels of speeding trucks at night, and wondered why people would not let these creatures live. Little did I know I would end up studying amphibians and pondering how to solve this crisis of vanishing biodiversity that we are facing today, for the rest of my life.

When I stepped into science about three years ago, I knew the vastness of the species extinction problem and the inability of a human brain to grasp it holistically. Today, when I return to the same forest where the owls once frequented, I see a large concrete structure standing undisturbed. What was once a rural area is now a full-blown city with increased human densities. The foliage where the cuckoos sang no longer exists since a mine that produces coal stands still.

Many like me do not want us to inhabit another planet. Instead, we would like to save the one that we’re on right now so that we can continue scientific studies that directly benefit people. While people need to understand the impact that declining forests and biodiversity have on them and their children, scientists also need to frame studies that include both people and wildlife. Then, scientific knowledge will be able to back people to build healthy living conditions. It may involve incorporating cost-effective and proven ways, such as preserving traditional, sustainable consumption practices, conserving the remaining forests, controlling industrial pollution, or uncovering historical, ecological knowledge on native Indian flora and fauna.

As a society, we need to hold the strings of large corporate and political lobbies like coal industries, dams, infrastructure development projects that are ultimately responsible for large scale environmental damage. The collective action of all will slowly yet steadily have the most considerable impact on reverting the extinction crisis and eventually lead to a healthy environment. In the centuries to come, I’d like to imagine that generations of human beings share at least their backyards with cuckoos and owls, if not their rooms with snakes and scorpions!