Scientists are debating whether to bring back vanished species.
On May 6, 1930, a Tasmanian farmer named Wilfred Batty grabbed a rifle and shot a thylacine—commonly known as a Tasmanian tiger—that was causinga commotion in his henhouse. The bullet hit the animal in the shoulder. Twenty minutes later, it was dead. A photograph taken soon afterward shows Batty kneeling beside the stiffened carcass, wearing a big floppy hat and a young man’s proud grin.
You can’t begrudge him some satisfaction in killing a threat to his livestock. What Batty did not know—could not know—is that he’d just made the last documented kill of a wild thylacine, anywhere, ever. In six years, the wonderfully odd striped-back creature—the largest marsupial carnivore known—would be extinct in captivity as well.
The thylacine is one of 795 extinct species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, which since 1963 has been tracking the planet’s biodiversity. The animals and plants on the list are organized into categories of increasing degrees of urgency, from “near threatened” through “critically endangered,” until you reach the last “extinct” group, whereupon the urgency abruptly plummets to zero. An endangered species is like a very sick person: It needs help, desperately. An extinct species is like a dead person: beyond help, beyond hope. (Endangered animal portraits: See pictures-and bleak numbers.)
Or at least it has been, until now. For the first time, our own species—the one that has done so much to condemn those other 795 to oblivion—may be poised to bring at least some of them back. (Interactive map: Get a close look at 20 endangered species in the U.S.)
The Question of De-extinction
The gathering awareness that we have arrived at this threshold prompted a group of scientists and conservationists to meet at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., last year to discuss the viability of the science and the maturity of the ethical argument surrounding what has come to be known as de-extinction. Next week an expanded group will reconvene at National Geographic headquarters in a public TEDx conference.
CONTINUED at National Geographic.