Everything on earth will perish. And the Lord said you are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. Two of every kind of bird, of every kind of animal and of every kind of creature that moves along the ground.
God wasn’t much of a biologist. Despite heated discussions with my deacon grandfather, birds are animals. They are archosaurian reptiles, to be specific. But the bible wasn’t big on dinosaurs, so the error isn’t much of a surprise. Male and female is a little off-the-mark too; whilst parthenogenesis is miraculous in Homo sapiens, it is a rather common occurrence throughout the animal kingdom. More germane to this discussion, it doesn’t really take a scientist to work out that attempting to recover a species from only two surviving individuals is fraught with difficulties. In modern conservation we have the 50/500 rule, which essentially states that any species that drops below 500 animals is unlikely to persist in the long term, and anything below 50 won’t even persist short term. A population of two is fucked. Genetically, demographically, and functionally fucked. You can’t just let them off the boat and think everything is going to be tickety-boo.
If we want to have any hope of saving species, we must act before the situation becomes so dire. Unfortunately the law largely prevents us from being proactive in conservation science. The funding is only afforded when species are on the brink. Extinction captures the public imagination. If the loss is not palpable, it is difficult to convince people to care. California Condors were allowed to dwindle down to two dozen individuals before anyone intervened. Many South and Central American frog species are now restricted to captive facilities because the spread of the chytrid fungus was left unabated for so long. Captive breeding is a last ditch effort. In an ideal world, we would not let the situation get so bad as to warrant it. But this is not an ideal world. We have a biblical situation on our hands, and the flood is entirely our own doing. With each passing day, the outside world becomes more and more inhospitable.
In the modern age, arks abound. Zoos, captive rearing facilities, fish hatcheries; we are snatching up animals for their own safety, left, right, and centre. But what now? It is far from a permanent solution. Disease risk is a major concern with housed animals, inbreeding is largely unavoidable, and all of this husbandry is ruinously expensive. Stockpiling species at risk is not the solution, it simply buys us time. Luckily we have several longstanding institutions that can guide us through this interim. We take a lot of our methods from agriculture. The recovery of the American alligator is one of the great success stories of conservation, and was due in large part to alligator ‘farms’. Farmers have been diligently keeping stud books and carefully tracking the genetic lineages of livestock for millennia. So much for GMO-free. Farmers are fastidious for good reason; lives and livelihoods are at stake. Without such a cautionary approach, famine and bankruptcy are almost inevitable. Similarly if conservation is not exacting in its methodologies, any reintroduction efforts would be doomed to failure.
The pet trade also has a lot of expertise to offer. In the trade of reptiles and amphibians for instance, husbandry techniques far surpass anything conservation has achieved. We lack the history, and the institutional knowledge. Clearly a priority then, is to codify this information that largely remains sequestered in the minds of a select few. We must first lose the elitism that pervades academia before scientists will be willing to partner with animal breeders. The black market for exotic animals does nothing to improve these relations, and besmirches the reputations of enthusiasts who truly care about the fate of these creatures. Once unity between the two communities has been achieved, and the black market eliminated, the problem becomes largely an economic one. The last-chance saloon is irritatingly crowded, and there simply isn’t enough to go round.
As a society, we pay for the things we deem important. It is a savage indictment of our education system that we do not consider endangered species deserving of our protection. And I extend this lament to the entire natural world, for as we will see next week, the biggest threat to most species is habitat loss, and if that habitat is not restored, all the captive breeding facilities in the world will not make the slightest difference. The story of Noah says nothing about the trees, the grasses, the fungi, the microbes, the parasites. When the floodwater receded, what habitat remained for the delirious, emaciated animals that disembarked? How long did it take for tropical rainforests to regrow? Where did the buffalo roam? These are not trivial questions. We have hundreds of giant pandas in zoos but nowhere to put them. Bison are relatively easy to farm, but the Great American Prairie is all but extinguished. Captive rearing can save a species from the brink, but without wholesale restoration of natural ecosystems, it is an exercise in futility. For the ark to work, Eden must be reclaimed.