Last to see: The future rise of extinction tourism

The allure of travel used to be the new, but as climate change continues to alter the environment, focus is shifting towards the nearly-extinct. We investigate the rise in extinction tourism

The world around us is changing at a rate we’ve never previously experienced, with climate change and human activity reshaping whole regions. Extinction rates are on the increase, with many subjects of loved children’s books set to vanish from the wild within a generation.

As sad a prospect as this is, it is also something that travel companies are seeking to capitalise on. Since 2008 companies have been offering packages for experiences that may not be around for much longer.

shutterstock_155704154“Some companies are using climate change as a marketing pitch, a ‘see it now before it’s gone’ kind of thing,” said Ayako Ezaki, communications director for the International Ecotourism Society, in an interview with IPS news when the organisation first reported on the phenomenon.

In the future, the ‘it’ places identified by travel trend hunters such as Lonely Planet’s yearly Bluelist are likely to shift, with many backpackers wanting to catch a glimpse of a loved animal in the wild before it is gone forever.

“In the past, the motivation to ‘be the first’ facilitated a rush to exotic destinations. But in a rapidly changing world, the rush to be one of the ‘last’ is the new travel phenomenon,” said Raynald Harvey Lemelin, co-editor of the book Last Chance Tourism: Adapting Tourism Opportunities in a Changing World, in a report on the future of travel by Skyscanner.

Extinction boom

The extinction rate has been on the rise since the 17th century, a trend that is largely attributable to the increased levels of exploration, colonisation and industrialisation by Europeans during this period. However, the rate is now growing significantly, with ten species declared extinct in the last five years, compared to only four in the previous ten years.

It is hard to get a precise timeline of likely extinction rates in the coming years, as there is conflicting information from different academic studies on the subject.

It is hard to get a precise timeline of likely extinction rates in the coming years

“Extinction is really about knowing the last individual is gone, and we don’t monitor the life of the planet that accurately,” said Stephen Hubbell, an ecologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, in an interview with The Boston Globe. “We have to use approximations, and that’s where the argument comes in.”

However, it is clear that the threat to wildlife is on the rise, and unless considerable efforts are made – not likely given our continued inability to take serious action on climate change – more and more species will go extinct.

“The overpowering message is that habitat loss and fragmentation are still the greatest threat to the future of species, and they are only increasing,” Eric Dinerstein, vice president of conservation science for WWF, told National Geographic in 2011.

Making it tourism

For those of us embarking on an epic trip, the opportunity to include glimpses of animals we’ve never before seen in the wild is highly appealing. Add to that the prospect that you might be one of the last people to ever see the animal in question, and it easily becomes a ‘must-do’ part of any global tour or backpacking adventure.

In the future we could see rare shots of at-risk animals become increasingly common on social media, as travellers record their trips and share them online. Animals that are closely associated with climate change are already receiving an upsurge in interest.

“Many of our current travellers have an urgency to see the polar bears before the full effects of global warming affect them further,” explained Rick Guthke, general manager of specialist tour operator Natural Habitat Adventures.

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Image courtesy of BIG architects

However, too high a surge in tourist numbers could pose a further threat to the very animals that travellers are coming to see. If the trend gets popular enough, an increasing number of sites may choose to restrict visitor numbers, something that is already common practice in some areas, such as in the Antarctic.

But there is also a benefit to extinction tourism: it provides the funds for any areas’ conservation efforts, meaning visitors are needed to aid some species’ survival.

“The bottom line is this: if we abandon tourism, we abandon conservation,” said Kenyan wildlife expert Jonathan Scott in the Skyscanner report. “When people ask me, ‘How can we help?’ we say: ‘By taking a safari.’ Wildlife-based tourism is not a choice but a necessity. It pays the bills that keep the game parks and their wildlife secure. Without the tourist dollars you might as well hand over all the remaining wildlife to the poachers.”

The zoo alternative

While some animals will be lost forever, there will no doubt be considered efforts to continue captive breeding programmes in organisations such as zoos. However, larger animals are unsuited to many older, traditional zoos, and while there are continued efforts to reform, a recent case in Argentina may further a move in another direction.

At the end of December a Sumatran orang-utan was legally recognised as a ‘non-human person’ by an Argentinian court, enabling it to be transferred from a zoo in Buenos Aires to a wildlife sanctuary.

“This opens the way not only for other great apes, but also for other sentient beings which are unfairly and arbitrarily deprived of their liberty in zoos, circuses, water parks and scientific laboratories,” lawyer Paul Buompadre, who worked on the case for animal rights group Afada, told La Nacion.

Instead of traditional zoos, we could see a move towards spaces that favour animals’ well-being over their ability to be seen by humans. But this doesn’t mean they will stop being destinations for visitors.

shutterstock_129316358The most high-profile example is Zootopia, a planned safari space in Denmark that has been dubbed the “world’s most animal-friendly zoo”. The space has been designed to recreate the animals’ natural habitats, giving them freedom to roam as they would in the wild. More interestingly, it has also been designed to remove the traditional walls between humans and animals so that humans can wander in close proximity to the Zootopia animals.

How exactly this will work in reality remains unclear – there will no doubt be considerable precautions to ensure the safety of both visitors and animals – but it does suggest that future non-natural spaces will provide a far more realistic environment for animals no longer found in the wild.

Not-so-Jurassic Park

And even for animals that have already gone extinct, all is not lost. However bizarre it may seem, some animals could be brought back to life. There are a variety of ways this process – known as de-extinction – could work, the most popular of which is cloning.

The primary requirements for this would be sample DNA from the animal in question and a living animal that is similar enough to be able to give birth to the clone. Clearly this renders some animals out of the question, but DNA has been captured from animals that have been long extinct.

A recent discovery of a well-preserved woolly mammoth led to the possibility of bringing the species back from the dead, sparking considerable debate on the subject.

Some attempts have even been made already, but have not yet been successful. The Pyrenean ibex, which went extinct in 2000, was briefly cloned back to life in 2009, but died shortly after. However, it seems likely that the process will eventually prove successful, potentially leading to a trend of animals coming back from the dead.issue8readfree

We could even see the growth of Jurassic Park-like safaris, where visitors can see animals in the flesh that had previously been long-extinct, bringing a whole new meaning to extinction tourism.

Factor’s Gift Guide: 10 Gifts for Geeks and Scifi Supremos

Stuck trying to find a present for the geek or science fiction fan in your life? We’ve got the answer, with 10 fun but nerdy ideas for gifts this Christmas.

Pluto Plush

£14.95 from getDigital

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The change of Pluto’s status from planet to dwarf planet was hard to bear and has to have been an emotional blow to the planet itself. Luckily you now have the chance to provide poor Pluto some comfort with this 1:17,000,000 plush. With the heart and arms based on the famous images sent from NASA’s New Horizons space probe, this is probably the friendliest the ice planet has ever been.

Cross Marvel Tech2 Iron Man Gift Set

£65 from Cross

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To commemorate three of the most iconic characters from the Marvel franchise – Captain America, Spider-Man, and Iron Man – Cross have paired up their Tech2 Marvel pens with high quality journals to produce the perfect gift set for the Marvel fan in your life. And just in case the looks alone weren’t enough to sell you on this, the pen itself switches between stylus and ballpoint to work with touchscreens.

Spiral Planetary Nebula Mural

£25+ from Murals Wallpaper

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Showing the planetary nebula NGC 5189, this mural is a beautiful addition to any astronomically inclined home. The image, captured by NASA’s Hubble Wide Field Camera, shows the star as it consumes the last remaining fuel from its core and expels glowing clouds of gas. Lighting up the darkness of space with the bright gases of sulphur, hydrogen and oxygen, this mural adds some stellar colour to any home.

Robocup

€20.95 from MonsterZeug

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A great gift for fans of the ‘80s classic, this Robocop mug combines high quality ceramic with the grim visage of a cyborg to satisfy all caffeine needs. Once designed to fight crime, the part-man part-machine now serves to deliver your morning coffee. So whether you’re a fan yourself, or just trying to help a friend get over the reboot, be sure to add this to your Christmas list.

Zeitia Polygon Chrome Chandelier

£1,000 from The Chandelier & Mirror Company

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If you want a lighting fixture for a geometrically inclined friend, this is the chandelier for you. Finished in chrome and composed of LED lights, the polygonal piece is sure to be as much of a talking piece as a source of illumination. Suitable for any room in the home, it may be pricey, but you’re unlikely to see much else like it.

Zero Gravity Fridge Rover

£4.99 from Mulberry Bush

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A brilliant little wind up car for any space geeks out there, the Fridge Rover makes use of magnets and a clockwork mechanism to defy gravity. A nice stocking filler, just wind it up and put it on your fridge to see the rover at work as it grips and goes. The science can be kept a secret, but the fun is certain to be obvious.

Scientific Lab Flasks

£14 from Not Another Bill

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Whether your recipients are just after décor that’s a little quirkier than usual or needing some new glassware for those secret experiments, these flasks have you covered. Each with 100ml or 250ml measurements, the glass homeware set features one beaker and two flasks. Bring a little science to your sauces by using them for measuring, or make your centrepiece a little more experimental and place them as a vase.

Townsend Star Wars R2-D2 Fountain Pen

£575 from Cross

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You don’t need to go to a galaxy far, far away to get a great gift for the Star Wars fan in your life this Christmas. Instead, grab this limited edition pen to commemorate the original movie. With deep-etched engravings on brushed platinum plate and presented in a luxury gift box, each of these pens is individually serialised. Well worthy of a triumphant whistle.

LEGO Doctor Who Set

£49.99 from Forbidden Planet

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LEGO continues its trend of producing the best licensed products out there with this Doctor Who set. Created by fan-designer Andrew Clark, this set brings together the Doctor and Clara inside the Tardis to face some of their iconic enemies. Choose from the Eleventh or Twelfth Doctor and then set him against a pair of Daleks or a Weeping Angel. Don’t blink, though, or you might miss this amazing gift.

Human Ingredients T-Shirt

£20 from the Science Museum Shop

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Ever wondered just what it is that goes into making you, well, you? Wonder no more, as the Science Museum has you covered with this handy t-shirt. Presented in the manner of a food label, the t-shirt’s design lists the most commonly found elements in the human body. Your nearest and dearest will never be caught out by the pub quiz again as right in front of their nose is the answer: they’re 65% oxygen.

If you had to retake control of a driverless car would you be ready?

Researchers from Stanford University have concluded that drivers who retake control of an autonomous car are more likely to be involved in an accident.

The study, published in the first issue of Science Robotics, found that roads could become especially dangerous when drivers made the transition back to being in control of autonomous vehicles due to changes in speed and other changes in driving conditions.

“Many people have been doing research on paying attention and situation awareness. That’s very important,” said lead author of the research and former graduate student in the Dynamic Design Lab at Stanford University, Holly Russell.

“But, in addition, there is this physical change and we need to acknowledge that people’s performance might not be at its peak if they haven’t actively been participating in the driving.”

Featured image courtesy of Steve Jurvetson

Featured image courtesy of Steve Jurvetson

During testing all drivers were given advance warning that they would be put back in control of a driverless car and were given the opportunity to drive around the testing track a number of times, so they could feel for themselves changes in speed or steering that may occur while the car drives itself.

However, during the trial itself, the drivers’ steering manoeuvres differed significantly from their ability when in control of the car from start to finish.

“Even knowing about the change, being able to make a plan and do some explicit motor planning for how to compensate, you still saw a very different steering behaviour and compromised performance,” said co-author of the research and research associate in the Revs Program at Stanford, Lene Harbott.

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Although no driver was so thrown off by the changes in steering that they drove off-course, the fact that there was a period of altered steering behaviour increased the likelihood of an accident occurring.

However, the Stanford study only addressed one specific example of the autonomous car to human driver handover; there is still a lot to learn about how people respond in other circumstances, depending on the type of car, the driver and how the driving conditions have changed.

“If someone is designing a method for automated vehicle handover, there will need to be detailed research on that specific method,” said Harbott. “This study is tip of an iceberg.”