Sunday, 28 February 2010

Little by little the bird builds its nest... Local solutions to a global issue

It is time for me to share something that has been wandering in my mind for the last couple of weeks... After reading hundreds and hundreds of papers (OK i am exaggerating but i am a future conservationist after all!!) I came to a personal conclusion: If we want to save the world's biodiversity we have to take a case by case approach... During this year i found that the most interesting papers (and easy to read) were those dealing with case studies where I actually learn something I might use later on... enough of this nonsense debates where we want to find a global solution... "land sharing vs land sparing", "rewilding: pros vs cons" etc... there is no absolute truth, no global antidote... the cultural gaps as well as the different conditions between countries and regions are so important that we can't overcome them with global strategies... What might work somewhere won't somewhere else. It is time for conservationist to use their sense of creativity, to learn from previous experiences in order to find the proper conservation approach for a specific case. Let the academician debate all they want, the reality is that there is one truth: the local conditions on the field. Worldwide conventions such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and even the Kyoto protocol often lead to disillusions and lets face it, complete failures... Establishing standard governance and management methods in different countries is nonsense... In Lebanon for example, corruption is (unfortunately) part of our culture and even of our charm some would say... That is of course not taken in consideration by the different committees established by the various international conventions (Ex:Designated National Authorities (DNA) for the Kyoto protocol) that have to follow standard procedures...
I guess that what I want to say is that we don't have to solve global issues with global strategies... we should not waste our time thinking of the new conservation trend that will solve all our problems... sometimes a bit of effort here and bit of effort there will lead to much more efficient and rapid results... Little by little the bird builds its nest...
And again I might be wrong, I am after all just a 24 year old student...


Monday, 22 February 2010

Debate on Rewilding

The debate on re-wilding goes on here ->

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Giving tiny toads a home

Zoos are a controversial subject. Even if we leave aside the question over the cruelty or not of keeping animals in captivity, there is a whole other debate as to their role in conservation. Pioneers such as Gerald Durrell say zoos as a vital component of conservation effort, acting as a stationary ark to preserve the most endangered species until their wild habitats can be repopulated. For Durrell, conservation was the primary objective of zoos and any other benefit was subsidiary. How then, does this ideal stand up in the cold light of day?

Examples such as the Arabian oryx (extinct in the wild in 1972, now has a wild population of over 1000) and black-footed ferret (last wild population removed to captivity in 1985, wild population thought to be in excess of 750) show that ex situ conservation can not only work but give a huge publicity boost to conservation. In a world of increasingly doom-laden prophecies, it’s nice to hear that the ferrets are OK.

However, several studies have argued that whilst there are success stories, there perhaps aren’t as many as we would like. Clubb et al. (2008) showed that elephants in captivity actually have a lower life expectancy than in the wild, whilst Balmford et al. (1995) demonstrated that keeping black rhinos in captivity costs over twice as much per year as managing a national park with rhinos in. Moreover, Conway (1986) made the point that even with the best will in the world, zoos will be unlikely to house viable populations of more than around 500 species of vertebrate. The IUCN red list currently contains over 1000 mammal species alone – clearly ex situ conservation will not be a panacea to biodiversity conservation.

There are many other issues with ex situ conservation as well, involving the risk of novel diseases, loss of adaptation to the wild, limited reintroduction success and so on, but I want to concentrate on this idea of capacity and choosing which animals you put in zoos. And I want to talk about tiny toads without a home.

In 1998, an adorable new species of toad was found in Tanzania. This week, the NY Times reported that there were no longer any in the wild ( In a similar story, the truly hilarious Panamanian golden frog was recently evacuated from its last known wild home ( and, whilst less yellow, the equally charismatic and brilliantly named mountain chicken frog was airlifted to safety ( - all the best news is from cbbc).

So why am I talking quite so much about amphibians? My point is that these species are as endangered as lions or elephants but you can actually keep them in captivity. If you load up a zoo with frogs, toads and even invertebrates then you can vastly increase the number of species you can save. The six species of Patulla snail at Bristol zoo are allegedly managed by a single part-time keeper; whilst the cost of keeping the (admittedly horrific-sounding) wartbiter cricket in captivity is something around 1% the cost of a gorilla. If zoos want to actually conserve species, rather than act solely as a glorified amusement park then they could get so much more done by concentrating on species they can actually keep alive. Unfortunately, this is almost exactly the opposite of what they are actually doing. The number of breeding programmes for mammals actually increases with body size (Balmford et al. 1996) when all sense and reason says the opposite should happen.

Obviously there are issues of drawing people to zoos using charismatic megafauna and so on but wouldn’t it be better to get people interested in the smaller, less spectacular species as well? Who are we to say that a rhino or a gorilla has any more right to a home than a tiny toad?

Monday, 1 February 2010

Bringing back extinct species – a mammoth undertaking

Thylacines roaming free in the forests of Tasmania, herds of aurochs and tarpans running in the lowlands of northern Europe, and a Barbary lion pouncing on a herd of red deer in the Atlas Mountains. A typical wildlife scenery on Earth before the humans ruled it.

The extinction of a species represents the saddest moment in the conservation-minded human. Nowadays, all conservation projects implemented in every corner of the world have the same overarching vision: to reduce the rate of extinction and secure the survival of as many species as possible. Extinct species stay in the backyard of history to remind us of our past mistakes and to stop us doing similar ones in the future.

Yet, the chance is there for us to reverse the wheel of history and make up for those mistakes. The above scenario might not be that far from happening in the present day, after all.

The issue of “reviving species” has received growing attention in the past decades. Many scientists around the world have been involved in projects aiming to bring extinct animals back to life. This “Jurassic park”-approach has evolved in two main directions, namely reviving through selective breeding and reviving through cloning.
It was the 1920s when the two German brothers, Heinz and Lutz Heck initiated selective breeding programmes for bringing back two of the most charismatic herbivores that had once roamed Europe: the aurochs (Bos primigenius), last seen in Poland’s forests in 1627, and the tarpan (Equus ferus) the last individual of which died out in 1909 ( These are the wild ancestors of the present cattle and horse. The latter have lost their “wild traits” through millennia of domestication and selective breeding by humans for specific purposes and needs. The approach used by the Heck brothers is in theory, the reverse process of domestication, the so called “breeding back”, where domestic individuals that carry wild traits and features are bred together to enhance the species’ wild features. The resulting animals seen today in some natural reserves and zoos throughout Europe are strikingly similar to the extinct wild species.

Similar and more recent attempts of breeding back animals that are phenotypically similar to extinct relatives involve the Barbary lion (Panthera leo leo), the last of which was shot in Morocco in 1922 and the Quagga (Equus quagga quagga), a subspecies of the Plains zebra that lived in southern Africa up to the 1870s. Some Barbary lions survived in captivity as property of the Sultan of Morocco, however this was largely unknown to the world up to the 1970 and the subspecies was assumed as extinct. The remaining lions in Morocco had similar features with the descriptions of extinct Barbary lions. Nowadays there are less than 100 lions in captivity dispersed in zoological gardens in Europe, North America and Morocco and a project undertaken by Preservation Station Inc. ( promotes the selective breeding of remaining individuals for preserving the genetic distinctiveness of the Barbary lion.
Attempts to breed back the quagga have initiated in the late 1980 by using individuals of Burchell’s zebra (Equus quagga burchelli). Quaggas, unlike other subspecies of the Plain’s zebra, lack the presence of stripes at the rump. In the reconstruction programme animals that display this trait are selectively bred to reconstruct the phenotype of the extinct subspecies (

Many extinct animals do not survive in domesticated form nor have close relatives from which they can be reconstructed. However, for some of them we have left genetic material that could be used to revive animals through cloning. The issue of cloning brings together many controversies and has been in the centre of hot debates between scientists for many years now. In spite of this, there are current projects that aim to revive extinct species such as the Thylacine and the Pyrenean ibex through cloning.

The Tylacine, or Tasmanian tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus) was last seen in 1936 and since 1999 a cloning project has been undertaken by the Australian Museum in Sydney ( however its success has been limited due to lack of technological advancements and the complexities arising from using another species as a host.
Similar cloning attempts have been implemented to resurrect the recently extinct Pyrenean ibex (Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica) in Spain by using domestic goats as surrogates. The first cloned ibex and the first extinct animal resurrected through cloning was born in January 2009 (, however the newborn died after 7 minutes due to respiratory problems possibly directly related to the cloning process.

Besides the hope and enthusiasm that might arise from the above cases there are still many controversies around the revival of extinct animals. There are many questions in need of answers in this delicate process before we can proceed with a clear vision for the future. Which are the animals that we can bring back? Are they going to fit in nowadays landscapes? Is it worth trying to bring back species when we still can’t secure the survival of the existing ones?
These uncertainties have been the cause hot debates between scientists around this issue. However, the process of reviving species represents the potential of humans for positive change. If we can show that we can reverse extinction then we can change the human mindset towards positive change and evoke greater hope for the future of our planet.

Aleksander Trajce

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons