If the big cats, or elephants or giraffes or pandas want to survive into the distant future they need to evolve. The changes taking place in their environment and in their loss of habitat are happening too fast for natural selection to throw up the genetic changes needed for long term survival. As long as humans remain the dominant species in their environment they will need to come to terms with that – genetically. Conventional conservation efforts are fundamentally flawed. They are backwards looking. They try to preserve these species – as they are – in artificially protected habitats which are frozen in time, which remain unchanged while the world around them changes. Conservation attempts to freeze these species and thereby lock them into the non-viable position they have found themselves in. This is not going to help them to continue into the future, except as an unsuccessful species. It is paradoxical that unsuccessful species are subject to conservation efforts and successful species get labelled as pests.
Much of the rapid change to the environments for these species is a consequence of the success of humanity as a species. Trying to keep a species unchanged and stagnating in a changing world seems to me to be irresponsible. And creating little protected bubbles of habitat – whether in a reserve or a zoo can only be a short term measure. Domesticated animals are at little risk of extinction as long as humans thrive. Their success is inextricably linked with the human species and they have been adapted genetically to be what they are today. They are not allowed to breed freely or indiscriminately and that is the genetic price they pay. But their survival is assured – at least as long as humans thrive and maybe even beyond.
‘There are many more “urbanised” species which have through a natural – but environmentally coerced or forced – selection adapted genetically to have the traits which allow them to be successful in the human-dominated environments they find themselves in. Foxes, bears, wolves, badgers and even the polar bears of Churchill have evolved and adapted to survive in human dominated environments. But they generally live surreptitious lives in the shadow of man. They have not found a sustainable position as yet. An increasing number of birds have adapted their behaviour (presumably also by genetic changes) to take advantage of human behaviour. They have learned to live in and around our cities, to take advantage of our agricultural and harvesting habits and to use our waste streams as their food source. Even in the water, there are fish species which succeed because of the changes brought about by man. Many insects – be they cockroaches or spiders or mosquitoes, or termites – now know how to take advantage of man-made environments. At the microbial or viral level, species are not much concerned by the changes wrought by humans and continue their merry way.
Now in this new age of DNA analysis and intentional selection of genes I think it is time for Conservation to move away from merely trying to “freeze” species in an artificially protected environment and to move into a pro-active phase where humans actually help threatened species to continue into the future. This does not mean that the neo-species that appear must necessarily be domesticated or in the service of humans but it does mean that they must share the same habitat and be able to co-exist. If they require a specialised habitat which is likely to disappear or change due to man or for any other reason, they are destined to eventually go extinct. Putting such species into zoos or other artificially maintained or otherwise protected habitats only preserves an obsolete species in a temporary environment. Conventional conservation as it is practiced today goes down that route. And while it may provide a short term method for preserving the genes of such species, it is in an unsustainable form. It is a method which does no real service to such species.
Instead of trying to recreate the woolly mammoth for an environment which is totally unsuitable or of making futile attempts to preserve habitats for elephants so that they continue “unchanged”, it would be better if we considered how elephants – or the big cats – could be assisted along the evolutionary path such that they could find a natural and sustainable place in the brave new world that they now inhabit. For example, if neo-elephants were helped to evolve genetically such that their propensity to wander over very large areas reduced, or if they preferred certain kinds of trees and bushes and left others alone, or where their wanderings were more discerning and not as damaging to human crops, then herds of neo-elephants could find a sustainable place by the side of humanity.
Perhaps Siberian neo-tigers could be evolved genetically to help herd reindeer and develop a mutually beneficial partnership with man. An occasional reindeer kill would then be quite acceptable. It would be so much more contructive if neo-wolves were helped not to stagnate genetically, but instead to evolve the behavioural characteristics that allowed them to find a way of co-existing with humans and human flocks of sheep. The idea of neo-dolphins who communicate with man and have a herding behaviour in the oceans which benefit both humans and themselves has long been a subject of science fiction. Our nearest primate cousins have to be helped to move on and not to stagnate into extinction. The pace of environmental change is much too fast for natural selection to throw up the individuals capable of survival. Instead a natural deselection of individuals incapable of surviving is taking place. Neo-gorillas and neo-chimpanzees will not appear without human intervention.
Conservation – as stagnation – is not sustainable. Trying to prevent change is a futile exercise. It is change which is the fundamental characteristic of life. It is managing change and even designing change which is a particular strength of the human species. It is human ingenuity at work. It is time to give thought to how we can help the species around us evolve into the neo-species which can cope with the changes which are inevitable.