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.

Ghostbusters steps into VR with “hyper-reality” experience from THE VOID

Ghostbusters is coming to virtual reality, in the form of a hyper-reality experience opening at Madame Tussauds New York later this week.

Developed in partnership with THE VOID, the company behind the virtual reality laser tag-like experience that opened in Utah last year, the experience blends real-world objects with virtual reality to allow users to interact with a virtual space.

Dubbed Ghostbusters Dimension, the 15-Minute VR experience allows audiences to take on the role of a ghostbuster seeking out supernatural enemies in a New York apartment block.

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“With an untethered VR experience that allows people to roam freely and interact with a physical world that matches the digital one they are seeing, consumers will have whole new levels of delight as they lose themselves in another realm,” said Clive Downie, CMO Unity Technologies, which provided the 3D engine that powers the experience.

“It’s giving presence to interactive storytelling putting people into the Ghostbusters world with high definition, high frame rate high excitement action, powered in part by Unity.”

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Images courtesy of THE VOID

While clearly a promotional tool for the new Ghostbusters film, the experience also offers many more people the opportunity to experience THE VOID’s unique hyper-reality offering.

Visitors to the company’s Utah-based experience wear custom head-mounted displays and backpack computers, which provide them with a virtual reality overlay to the space they are in.

The hardware users wear is styled to look like futuristic armour and is known as RAPTURE gear.

“The Ghostbusters world is the perfect fit for THE VOID because you literally strap our RAPTURE gear on and it turns into your proton pack and proton gun,” said James Jensen, Chief Visionary Officer at THE VOID.

The experience will open at Madame Tussauds New York on the 1st of July, as part of a wider Ghostbusters exhibition.

Each hyper-reality session will last 15 minutes with up to three people able to take part at a time, meaning tickets are likely to sell out fast.

Tickets, which also get you into the rest of Madame Tussauds, cost $49.75 a person, although you do have to sign a liability waiver if you want to take part.

Nevertheless, we expect Ghostbusters Dimension to be a big hit when it opens later this week.

Scientists develop unprecedented method for delivering drugs to the brain

A new study has discovered that a specific peptide – a chain of amino acids – can be used to carry molecules and nanoparticles to damaged areas of the brain – effectively enabling technology that could lead to new therapeutics for traumatic brain injuries.

The scientists from the Sanford Burnham Prebys Discovery Institute (SBP) have published their findings in Nature Communications.

Erkki Ruoslahti, senior author of the study, explained: “We have found a peptide sequence of four amino acids, cysteine, alanine, glutamine, and lysine (CAQK) that recognizes injured brain tissue. This peptide could be used to deliver treatments that limit the extent of damage.”

brain-memory

In the US alone, around 2.5 million sustain traumatic brain injuries every year – usually from car crashes, falls or violence. While the initial injury cannot be repaired, the damaging effects from breaking brain cells and blood vessels can be minimised immediately following the injury.

“Current interventions for acute brain injury are aimed at stabilizing the patient by reducing intracranial pressure and maintaining blood flow, but there are no approved drugs to stop the cascade of events that cause secondary injury,” said Aman Mann, first author of the study.

Numerous candidate drugs that block events post-injury that can cause secondary damage are currently in preclinical trials.

Ruoslahti added: “Our goal was to find an alternative to directly injecting therapeutics into the brain, which is invasive and can add complications. Using this peptide to deliver drugs means they could be administered intravenously, but still reach the site of injury in sufficient quantities to have an effect.”

Schematic illustrating how the intravenously injected peptide would accumulate at the site of brain injury. Image courtesy of Ryan Allen, Second Bay Studios

Schematic illustrating how the intravenously injected peptide would accumulate at the site of brain injury. Image courtesy of Ryan Allen, Second Bay Studios

The CAQK peptide works by binding to components of the meshwork surrounding brain cells known as chondroitin sulfate proteoglycans. These large proteins increase in volume following injury to the brain.

“Not only did we show that CAQK carries drug-sized molecules and nanoparticles to damaged areas in mouse models of acute brain injury, we also tested peptide binding to injured brain samples and found the same selectivity,” Mann noted.

But the discovery goes even further. According to the scientists, the same peptide can also be used to create tools to identify brain injuries, by attaching it to materials than can be detected by medical imaging devices.

“And, because the peptide can deliver nanoparticles that can be loaded with large molecules,” Ruoslahti added, “it could enable enzyme or gene-silencing therapies.”

The technology has already been licensed by start-up company AivoCode, which was recently awarded a Small Business Innovation Research grant for further development and commercialisation.

It’s exciting news: the discovery could go a long way to developing a new, effective therapy for traumatic brain injuries.

31 scientific societies remind US lawmakers that man-made climate change is real

Thirty one leading scientific societies have today written to United States policymakers reconfirming the reality of man-made climate change and urging them to take action

The letter is intended as a reaffirmation of the message conveyed in a 2009 letter, at the time signed by eighteen leading scientific organisations, in the hope of providing authoritative information to those who have the power to work towards solutions.

“Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research concludes that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver,” the collaboration said in its letter to Members of Congress. “This conclusion is based on multiple independent lines of evidence and the vast body of peer-reviewed science.”

The letter has been signed by the leaders of organisations including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Meteorological Society, the American Institute of Biological Sciences and the American Statistical Association.

Image courtesy of Ocean Biology Processing Group at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Above: image courtesy of ESA / NASA

Image courtesy of Ocean Biology Processing Group at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Above: image courtesy of ESA / NASA

The re-release of the letter, with its expanded consensus, is intended to drive home the dangers of greenhouse gas emissions from an objective perspective. With environmental issues often becoming politicised, the societies likely intend for their nonpartisan backgrounds to defuse accusations of political bias and enable them get straight to the science.

Citing the vast consensus of climate scientists and scientific organisations, including the US Global Change Research Program, the US National Academies and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the organisations’ message focuses on the negative impact that greenhouse gas emissions could have on many aspects of life around the world.

“To reduce the risk of the most severe impacts of climate change, greenhouse gas emissions must be substantially reduced,” the group said, adding that adaptation is also necessary to “address unavoidable consequences for human health and safety, food security, water availability, and national security, among others.”

Image courtesy of NASA

Image courtesy of NASA

Already in the United States alone, the group reports that climate change has seen increased threats of extreme weather events, sea-level rise, water scarcity, heat waves, wildfires and disturbances to ecosystems and animals.

However, American politicians’ likely compliance with the suggestions of the intersociety group is uncertain, given their history with climate change.

We will have to wait to see whether the recent Paris Agreement will be ratified, but it would not be the first time the US has failed to ratify an ecological treaty; the Kyoto Protocol was notably never ratified under the Bush administration.

“Climate change is real and happening now, and the United States urgently needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said AAAS Chief Executive Officer Rush Holt, executive publisher of the Science family of journals.

“We must not delay, ignore the evidence, or be fearful of the challenge. America has provided global leadership to successfully confront many environmental problems, from acid rain to the ozone hole, and we can do it again. We owe no less to future generations.”