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.


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.

Global wildlife set to see 67% drop in numbers by 2020: WWF

A landmark report released today by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) has found that the world’s vertebrates are set to see an average population drop of 67% from 1970 levels by the end of this decade.

This conclusion was drawn from data collected in The Living Planet Report 2016, the most comprehensive survey of the state of species and ecosystems ever undertaken.

At present, vertebrate populations – that is fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles – have already seen a 58% population decline since 1970, but the notion of this ramping up to 67% in just four years is deeply concerning.

“For the first time since the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, we face a global mass extinction of wildlife,” said Mike Barrett, director of science and policy at WWF-UK.

“We ignore the decline of other species at our peril – for they are the barometer that reveals our impact on the world that sustains us. Humanity’s misuse of natural resources is threatening habitats, pushing irreplaceable species to the brink and threatening the stability of our climate.”

The wide-reaching report involved tracking more than 14,000 species of vertebrate from 1970 to 2012; a feat that was achieved using an immense database run by ZSL known as the Living Planet Index.

It draws particular attention to how human activity has impacted on wildlife populations, including through deforestation, overfishing and pollution, as well as the illegal wildlife trade and climate change.

Among the many, many vertebrates affected are Africa’s various species of elephants, which collectively has seen a population drop of 111,000 in the last 10 years, thought to be the result of poaching, leaving only 415,000 left across the entire continent.

Across Asia only 3,900 tigers are now left the wild, as a result of a variety of human activities including habitat destruction and climate change.

And in the waters around Europe, Orcas are seeing a significant decline as a result of the extremely toxic levels of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) found in their blubber.


However despite the concerning news, ZSL and WWF maintain that action can be taken to stop this decimation of the world species, with the wildlife charity calling on members of the public to demonstrate to their governments that they want urgent action to be taken.

“We know how to stop this. It requires governments, businesses and citizens to rethink how we produce, consume, measure success and value the natural environment.,” said Barrett.

“In the UK, this demands a serious plan to strengthen protection for habitats and species and new measures to fast track low-carbon growth. Britain, like all developed nations, must take increasing responsibility for its global footprint.”

“Across land, freshwater and the oceans, human activities are forcing species populations and natural systems to the edge,” added Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International. “We have the tools to fix this problem and we need to start using them if we are serious about our own survival and prosperity.”

Near-perfect quantum clones open path to crypto-communication

Physicists have created near-perfect clones of quantum information, their newly developed method allowing them to produce clones that surpass the previous limits of quantum cloning.

A research team from the Australian National University (ANU) and University of Queensland developed the new cloning method using high performance optical amplifiers to clone light encoded with quantum information.

The team’s technique could allow existing fibre optic infrastructure to implement quantum encryption.

“One obstacle to sending quantum information is that the quantum state degrades before reaching its destination. Our cloner has many possible applications, and could help overcome this problem to achieve secure long-distance communication,” said Professor Ping Koy Lam, node director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology (CQC2T) at ANU.

Quantum cloning consists of taking an unknown and arbitrary quantum state, which provides the probability distribution for the value of each observable in an isolated quantum system, and making a copy without altering the original state in any way.

The laws of quantum mechanics render it impossible to make a perfect quantum clone, making it necessary for the researchers to use a probabilistic method to demonstrate the possibility of creating clones that exceed the theoretical quality limits. This method builds off work initially proposed by CQC2T researchers, led by Professor Timothy Ralph at the University of Queensland.

“Imagine Olympic archers being able to choose the shots that land closest to the target’s centre to increase their average score,” said Ralph. “By designing our experiment to have probabilistic outputs, we sometimes ‘get lucky’ and recover more information than is possible using existing deterministic cloning methods. We use the results closest to a ‘bullseye’ and discard the rest.”

Images courtesy of Lee Henderson/UNSW

A visual representation of the cloning process. Images courtesy of Lee Henderson/UNSW

The new method is capable of generating quantum clones with a success rate of roughly 5%, a higher quality than has ever been created before. The probabilistic technique allows for the creation of up to five clones of a single quantum state and works by first encoding information onto a light beam in a fragile quantum state.

“At the heart of the demonstration is a ‘noiseless optical amplifier’. When the amplification is good enough, we can then split a light beam into clones,” said Ralph. “’Amplify-then-split’ allows us to clone the light beam with minimal distortion, so that it can still be read with exquisite precision.”

The importance of quantum cloning lies in opening up valuable experimental possibilities, as well as crypto-communication. There is a technological race to make use of quantum information for ultra-secure encryption, currently restricted by its limited communication range.

The Australian research team hopes, however, that their new method may open up the path to impenetrable encryption on communications between two parties.

The research is detailed today in the journal Nature Communications.

AI judge comes to the same conclusions as humans in human rights trials

Artificial intelligence has been used to predict the outcome of judicial decisions made by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) with 79% accuracy.

Researchers at University College London and the universities of Sheffield and Pennsylvania fed the AI English language data sets pertaining to 584 cases and let the algorithm find patterns in the text.

All of the cases related to specific articles of the Convention on Human Rights (Articles 3, 6 and 8). To prevent bias and mislearning, they selected an equal number of violation and non-violation cases.

“We don’t see AI replacing judges or lawyers, but we think they’d find it useful for rapidly identifying patterns in cases that lead to certain outcomes. It could also be a valuable tool for highlighting which cases are most likely to be violations of the European Convention on Human Rights,” explained Dr Nikolaos Aletras, who led the study at UCL Computer Science.

Image courtesy of Oleg Mikhaylov /

Image courtesy of Oleg Mikhaylov /

In developing the AI, the researchers found that judgements by the ECtHR are often based on non-legal facts rather than directly legal arguments, which makes the job of an AI even harder.

To get to a judgement, the AI deliberated over language used as well as the topics and circumstances mentioned in the case text. The AI also looked at the factual background to the case.

By combining the information extracted from the case files, the AI achieved an accuracy of 79%.

“Previous studies have predicted outcomes based on the nature of the crime, or the policy position of each judge, so this is the first time judgements have been predicted using analysis of text prepared by the court. We expect this sort of tool would improve efficiencies of high level, in demand courts, but to become a reality, we need to test it against more articles and the case data submitted to the court,” added Dr Lampos.


The articles chosen by the researchers were used because they represented cases about fundamental rights and because there was a large amount of published data on them.

However, the researchers would have like to have been given access to application made directly to court, rather than having to make do with the outcome of those applications.

“Ideally, we’d test and refine our algorithm using the applications made to the court rather than the published judgements, but without access to that data we rely on the court-published summaries of these submissions,” explained co-author, Dr Vasileios Lampos, UCL Computer Science.