From killing to conserving

On July 3rd, 1844, the last surviving pair of Great Auks were killed on Eldey, off the coast of Iceland, making the species extinct. The bird was flightless, and clumsy on land, but an efficient swimmer, living off fish and crustaceans. There were once millions of them, but it has been an important food source for humans, from the Neanderthals 100,000 years ago, until its demise in the 19th Century. The birds were hunted for their meat, eggs, and their down feathers that were used in pillows.

The Great Auk is only one among many species whose extinction has been linked to humans and their hominid predecessors. The arrival of humans in places that had no previous human inhabitants has often, if not always, precipitated a mass extinction. The megafauna of the late Pleistocene or Holocene became extinct partly because of changes in the Earth's climate, but significantly because they were easy prey to skilled, tool-using, early human hunters. Victims include charismatic animals and birds, including the woolly mammoth, quagga, dodo, moa, glyptodon and countless others less well known.

The development of agriculture and animal husbandry caused extinctions through habitat changes, and early industrialization and population increase created a demand for easily processed animal products. Whales were hunted to near extinction for their oil, used in margarine and soap, and in the lamps that lit homes and streets. Ironically, they were saved by the development of petroleum products led by John D Rockefeller, someone not otherwise noted as a conservationist.

As humanity's wealth has increased, however, so has it diminished the need to exploit animals to extinction. Now that technology has given us alternatives, we can practise and afford conservation. Indeed, technology is enabling us to save species that would probably be gone without it. Artificial insemination and IVF is being used to breed endangered species like the giant panda. Cloning is being used to save others.

Even more exotic techniques are under development. Genetically modified crops are being developed to grow in salty and arid conditions, reducing the need to destroy rainforest habitats to plant food crops. Cultured "lab-grown" meats will greatly reduce the need for pastures, again allowing us to leave wild habitats alone, and even to rewild large areas of current farmland. Research is being done to develop lab-grown ivory, produced in quantity from a few cells. When it floods the market, it will make poaching uneconomic by lowering the price of ivory to a fraction of what it currently fetches.

And slightly further down the road is the prospect of restoring species already lost by recreating them from their DNA. The Great Auk is a likely early candidate, given the quantities of DNA we have from it. The technique will be to replace the nucleus in the egg of a similar bird with Great Auk DNA, so it will be a Great Auk chick that is hatched. A similar project is under way to restore the woolly mammoth by altering an elephant's embryo and having it gestate a mammoth. Almost certainly this can be done with other currently extinct species.

Further still down that road will be recreating lost species, not from their DNA, but by manipulating the genes not turned on in their descendants. This raises the prospect of recreating dinosaurs from their surviving avian relatives.

Humanity, having wiped out species throughout its past, now for the first time in its history has the resources and the beginnings of the expertise to make amends for some of what its predecessors did. It won't be achieved by us all becoming vegans or living more simply. It will be done by putting our wealth and our technology toward making that goal a reality.