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.

140729-zootopia-webshow-short_frontend

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.

Elon Musk isn't so keen on flying cars

"Obviously, I like flying things, but it’s difficult to imagine the flying car becoming a scalable solution,” Musk told Bloomberg Businessweek. “If somebody doesn’t maintain their flying car, it could drop a hubcap and guillotine you.”

Source: Bloomberg

Is the woolly mammoth about to come back from extinction?

Scientists from Harvard University say they are just two years away from creating a hybrid embryo, in which mammoth traits would be programmed into an Asian elephant. The embryo would essentially grow to be an elephant with a number of mammoth traits.

Source: The Guardian

Congress is repeatedly warned NASA’s exploration plans aren’t sustainable

An expert panel has wanred that while NASA might have some of the right tools to launch and fly to destinations in deep space, it doesn't have the resources to land on the Moon, to build a base there or to fly humans to the surface of Mars.

Source: Ars Technica

IMAX unveils first virtual reality center

The IMAX VR center, which opened this week, houses 14 different pods, each containing different VR experiences that allow users to temporarily escape real life. One of the pods takes users to the desert planet of Tatooine, which will be familiar to Star Wars fans.

Source: Variety

Could Alexa be forced to testify in an Arkansas murder trial?

A trial is about to begin over the mysterious death of a former police officer at a home in Bentonville, Arkansas. The case is significant because it could help decide whether prosecutors should be allowed to subpoena a virtual assistant.

Source: VICE

Dwarf planet Ceres emerges as a place to look for life in the solar system

Pockets of carbon-based organic compounds have been found on the surface of Ceres. The identity of the tar-like minerals have't been precisely identified, but their mineral fingerprints match the make-up of kerite or asphaltite.

Source: New Scientist

Beyond biomimicry: Scientists find better-than-nature run style for six-legged robots

Researchers have found a running style for six-legged robots that significantly improves on the traditional nature-inspired method of movement.

The research, conducted by scientists at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the University of Lausanne (UNIL) in Switzerland, found that as long as the robots are not equipped with insect-like adhesive pads, it is faster for them to move with only two legs on the ground at any given time.

Robotics has in the past few years made heavy use of biomimicry – the practice of mimicking natural systems – resulting in six-legged robots being designed to move like insects. In nature, insects use what is known as a tripod gait, where they have three legs on the ground at a time, so it had been assumed that this was the most efficient way for similarly legged robots to move.

However, by undertaking a series of computer simulations, tests on robots and experiments on Drosophila melanogaster – better known as the common fruit fly – the scientists found that the two-legged approach, which they have dubbed the bipod gait, results in faster and more efficient movement.

The core goal of the research, which is published today in the journal Nature Communications, was to confirm whether the long-held assumption that a tripod gait was best was indeed correct.

“We wanted to determine why insects use a tripod gait and identify whether it is, indeed, the fastest way for six-legged animals and robots to walk,” said Pavan Ramdya, study co-lead and corresponding author.

Initially, this involved the use of a simulated insect model based on the common fruit fly and an algorithm designed to mimic different evolutionary stages. This algorithm simulated different potential gaits to create a shortlist of those that it deemed to be the fastest.

This, however, shed light on why insects have a tripod gait – and why it may not be the best option for robots. The simulations showed that the traditional tripod gait works in combination with the adhesive pad found on the ends of insects’ legs to make climbing over vertical surfaces such as rocks easier and quicker.

Robots, however, are typically designed to walk along flat surfaces, and so the benefits of such a gait are lost.

“Our findings support the idea that insects use a tripod gait to most effectively walk on surfaces in three dimensions, and because their legs have adhesive properties. This confirms a long-standing biological hypothesis,” said Ramdya. “Ground robots should therefore break free from only using the tripod gait”.

Study co-lead authors Robin Thandiackal (left) and Pavan Ramdya with the six-legged robot used in the research. Images courtesy of EPFL/Alain Herzog

To for always corroborate the simulation’s findings, the researchers built a six-legged robot that could move either with a bipod or tripod gait, and which quickly confirmed the research by being faster when moving with just two legs on the ground at once.

However, they went further by confirming that the adhesive pads were in fact playing a role in the insect’s tripod movement.

They did this by equipping the fruit flies with tiny polymer boots that would cover the adhesive pads, and so remove their role in the way the insects moved. The flies’ responses confirms their theory: they began moving with a bipod-like gate rather than their conventional tripod-style movement.

“This result shows that, unlike most robots, animals can adapt to find new ways of walking under new circumstances,” said study co-lead author Robin Thandiackal.

As bizarre as the research sounds, it provides valuable new insights both for roboticists and biologists, and could lead to a new standard in the way that six legged robots are designed to move.

“There is a natural dialogue between robotics and biology: Many robot designers are inspired by nature and biologists can use robots to better understand the behavior of animal species,” added Thandiackal. “We believe that our work represents an important contribution to the study of animal and robotic locomotion.”