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.

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Stronger in old age: Stem cell research paves way for muscle-building medication

It could in the future be possible to take medication that will allow you to build muscle, even when you are in old age.

This is due to the findings of research at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, which found that large, and wholly unexpected, amounts of mutations in muscle stem cells blocks their ability to regenerate cells.

“What is most surprising is the high number of mutations. We have seen how a healthy 70-year-old has accumulated more than 1,000 mutations in each stem cell in the muscle, and that these mutations are not random but there are certain regions that are better protected,” said Maria Eriksson, professor at the Department of Biosciences and Nutrition at Karolinska Institutet.

With this knowledge, researchers could develop therapies that would encourage such regeneration, and so allow older people to rebuild lost muscle.

“We can demonstrate that this protection diminishes the older you become, indicating an impairment in the cell’s capacity to repair their DNA. And this is something we should be able to influence with new drugs,” explained Eriksson.

The landmark research, which is published today in the journal Nature Communications, involved the use of single stem cells, which were cultivated to provide enough DNA for whole genome sequencing – a medical first for this part of the body.

“We achieved this in the skeletal muscle tissue, which is absolutely unique. We have also found that there is very little overlap of mutations, despite the cells being located close to each other, representing an extremely complex mutational burden,” said study first author Irene Franco, a postdoc in Eriksson’s research group.

While a significant step, the research is now being expanded to look at whether exercise affects the number of mutations – a potentially vital factor in understand why and how these mutations occur.

“We aim to discover whether it is possible to individually influence the burden of mutations. Our results may be beneficial for the development of exercise programmes, particularly those designed for an ageing population,” said Eriksson.

The research is one of a host of projects being conducted across the world that have potential impacts on ageing, an area that was long ignored by much of the scientific community, but is now garnering increased support.

If many – or even a fair minority – of these findings eventually become the basis of therapeutics, it could be transformative for old age in the future, allowing people to remain healthier for far later in life and potentially even leading to longer life expectancies.