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.

Study finds biofuels are contributing to climate change, not mitigating it

Biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel are not anywhere near as environmentally friendly as previously thought.

A study by researchers at the University of Michigan, published today in the open-access journal Climactic Change, has found that biofuels actually increase the heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions responsible for global warming, despite their reputation for being a ‘clean’ fuel source.

It was previously thought that such fuels were carbon-neutral, based on the premise that the CO₂ they produce when burnt was balanced by the CO₂ the plants absorbed as they grew. However, this study has found that the crops’ CO₂ absorption only mitigated a fraction of its emissions.

Using extensive crop production data from the US Department of Agriculture, alongside data on fossil fuel production and vehicle emissions, the researchers found that during a time when biofuel use rapidly increased in the US, the biofuel crops’ CO₂ absorption only offset 37% of their emissions when burnt.

“This is the first study to carefully examine the carbon on farmland when biofuels are grown, instead of just making assumptions about it,” explained research professor and study lead author John DeCicco, from the University of Michigan Energy Institute.

“When you look at what’s actually happening on the land, you find that not enough carbon is being removed from the atmosphere to balance what’s coming out of the tailpipe.”

A vehicle owner tops up his car using the biofuel ethanol in Washington State, the US. The country has promoted biofuels as a green alternative for transport. Image courtesy of Carolina K. Smith MD / Shutterstock.com

A vehicle owner tops up his car using the biofuel ethanol in Washington State, the US. The country has promoted biofuels as a green alternative for transport. Image courtesy of Carolina K. Smith MD / Shutterstock.com

The findings have significant ramifications for climate change mitigation approaches, as biofuels have increasingly been used as a cleaner alternative to petroleum. In many parts of the world they form a vital part of government-backed plans to reduce carbon emissions; a role that may well need to be reconsidered now that such strong doubt has been cast on their effectiveness.

In the US, for example, they are recommended for transportation purposes by the US Renewable Fuel Standard, which has helped to spur growth in production in the country from 4.2 billion gallons in 2005 to 14.6 billion gallons in 2013.

The researchers have even gone so far as to argue biofuels are worse than other traditional fuel sources, due to the false sense of security they provide to policymakers.

“When it comes to the emissions that cause global warming, it turns out that biofuels are worse than gasoline,” said DeCicco.

“So the underpinnings of policies used to promote biofuels for reasons of climate have now been proven to be scientifically incorrect.”

Biofuels are often presented as environmentally friendly, such as in this concept image. This will now have to change as a result of the study's findings

Biofuels are often presented as environmentally friendly, such as in this concept image. This will now have to change as a result of the study’s findings

As a result of the shocking findings, the researchers are now recommending that policymakers reconsider their use of biofuels to mitigate climate change.

“Policymakers should reconsider their support for biofuels,” said DeCicco.

“This issue has been debated for many years. What’s new here is that hard data, straight from America’s croplands, now confirm the worst fears about the harm that biofuels do to the planet.”

Record-breaking device promises low cost, efficient solar energy storage

Researchers at  École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology (CSEM) have designed a new device using commercially available solar cells, and none of the usual rare metals, that stores solar energy as hydrogen more stably, efficiently and at lower cost than all previous methods.

Solar energy is stored for periods without sun by converting the energy into hydrogen via electrolysis, using the electrical current produced by the solar panel to split water molecules into their hydrogen and oxygen components.

The hydrogen can then be stored for future use as fuel or to produce electricity. The issue encountered so far is that although there are hydrogen-production technologies with potential, they have been too unstable or expensive to be used on a commercial scale.

Image courtesy of Infini Lab / EPFL 2016

Image courtesy of Infini Lab / EPFL 2016

The method used by the EPFL and CSEM team involved a combination of components that have already been proven to be effective in the industry.

The researchers’ prototype consists of three interconnected, new-generation, crystalline silicon solar cells attached to an electrolysis system that does not rely on rare metals.

The device can convert solar energy into hydrogen at a rate of 14.2% and has so far been run for more than 100 straight hours in test conditions. This represents a world record for silicon solar cells, as well as for the production of hydrogen without the use of rare metals.

The team’s effort outdoes all prior attempts in regards to stability, performance, lifespan and cost efficiency.

“A 12-14m² system installed in Switzerland would allow the generation and storage of enough hydrogen to power a fuel cell car over 10,000km every year,” said EPFL researcher Christophe Ballif, who co-authored the paper and who also heads the CSEM PV-center.

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Traditional solar panels, which have seen growing worldwide use over the last decade

The key to the team’s success is two-fold, resting on both the efficient use of existing components and the employment of a ‘hybrid’ crystalline-silicon solar cell based on heterojunction technology.

The device is structured using layers of crystalline silicon and amorphous silicon that allow for higher voltages, meaning that with only three of these interconnected cells, it is possible to generate a near perfect voltage for electrolysis.

Additionally keeping the cost down is the usage of a nickel catalyst for the electrochemical part of the process. The concept was proven using standard heterojunction cells, but it is expected that by using the best available cells, they could achieve performance rates as high as 16%.

“We wanted to develop a high performance system that can work under current conditions,” said Jan-Willem Schüttauf, a researcher at CSEM and co-author of the paper.

“The heterojunction cells that we use belong to the family of crystalline silicon cells, which alone account for about 90% of the solar panel market. It is a well-known and robust technology whose lifespan exceeds 25 years. And it also happens to cover the south side of the CSEM building in Neuchâtel.”

Breakthrough Starshot to develop first spacecraft destined for newly discovered Proxima b planet

Pete Worden, chairman of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation and former director of NASA’s Ames Research Centre, earlier today expanded on the plans of the Breakthrough Starshot initiative to explore the Centauri star system.

As part of the European South Observatory’s (ESO) announcement of their discovery of Proxima b, a planet in the Alpha Centauri system that may be capable of supporting life, Worden explained how the Breakthrough Initiative would be a part of the future exploration of the system and Proxima b specifically, suggesting that the organisation would be the first to send a probe to the planet.

Breakthrough Starshot was announced on April 12 of this year by tech entrepreneur Yuri Milner and scientist Stephen Hawking at the One World Observatory in New York.

Starshot is a privately funded initiative aimed at developing humanity’s first probe to reach another star system. Specifically, the Starshot Initiative involves the development of a nanocraft, weighing just 1g, which will then be attached to a lightsail and pushed, alongside hundreds of other such craft, into space using an extremely powerful laser.

The laser will push these nanocraft in the direction of the Centauri system at approximately 20% of the speed of light, a speed which will see the craft reach their destination in 20 years. Upon arrival, the craft will then begin to beam data collected on Proxima b back to Earth via laser.

As Worden said: “The technology is today is sufficient enough to think about these things. The key question of our initiative was whether there are potentially life-bearing planets orbiting these stars.

“We have assembled a team of the world’s most knowledgeable experts to assess this question. With today’s announcement we now know that there is at least one planet, the one orbiting Proxima Centauri that has some characteristics similar to the Earth.”

The importance of the project is obviously centred around the possibility of life on the newly discovered planet. Starshot’s craft will not only be mankind’s first probe launched towards the Proxima Centauri star, but may well be the first to discover life outside of our planet.

Yuri Milner holds a 1g nanocraft, which could be the first spacecraft to be sent to Proxima b. Image courtesy of Bryan Bedder / Getty Images

Yuri Milner holds a 1g nanocraft, which could be the first spacecraft to be sent to Proxima b. Image courtesy of Bryan Bedder / Getty Images. Featured image courtesy of Breakthrough Starshot

The organisation is working with the ESO to achieve this goal, but is privately funded with an initial research budget of $100m over the next few years. The Starshot project is overseen by Yuri Miller, Stephen Hawking and Mark Zuckerberg and aims to build a prototype system costing between $500m and $1bn.

Once their concepts have been successfully developed, the aim is to build a full system that will send the nanocraft to Proxima and Alpha Centauri within a generation. This full system is believed to cost in a range approximate to that of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider and is intended to draw funding from global public-private partnerships.

The final question, however, is just how long it will be before we actually achieve travel to the star?

“I believe that later this century and with our own plans that we think maybe by 2060 we can arrive at Proxima Centurai and we can get these images,” said Worden. “We hope to see: is there life there? There could be advanced life there. Those are some of those great questions that are going to be answered this century.”