We have a moral obligation to save the species we have endangered. But we must proceed with caution.

Humans have a long history of making ' very bad decisions ' to save animals. As scientists push the frontiers of conservation technology, some of their initiatives raise ethical questions.

A chief lesson of the last century of ecological research and public policy is that well-intentioned interventions can easily, disastrously backfire - with consequences borne by people and animals left-out of the decision-making process.

As conservation technology becomes more advanced, the scale of potential adverse consequences rises.

The plan to rescue the northern white rhino is unique, but its existential predicament is not. Between poaching, the bulldozing of natural habitats to make way for farms or shopping malls, and the mounting pressure to climate change, up to one million species are currently at risk of extinction, according to a United Nations report.

We are living through one of only half a dozen periods in Earth's history with such a devastating rate of species loss, even without the help of an asteroid or mega-volcano.

But this time, we do have the help of science. And as threats to biodiversity escalate and more and more species face extinction, scientists are responding  with ever more creative, hands-on and potentially risky interventions to try to save them.

They are cryogenically banking reproductive cells collected via electroejaculation and using them to perform assisted pregnancies.

They are physically relocating animals to safer habitats by truck and airplane. They are transporting animals over special bridges, shooting them through cannons and dangling them upside down from helicopters.

To study shy animals, they're dispatching robots and dressing in costumes. They're concocting love potions and personally mimicking mating rituals. To knock out invasive predators, they're chucking poisoned sausages and mice out of airplanes and dispatching more robots [ weaponized to kill invasive starfish].

MOST controversial they're studying how they might alter the genes of wild animals to either confer resistance to climate shocks or, if the animals in question is an invasive predator, deliberately cause its population to collapse.

These increasingly inventive initiatives signal a shift. toward a new era in the science of conservation -one that could prove vital for preserving certain ecosystems, but that also poses some serious ethical questions.

Traditionally, conservation was a game of isolating land and leveraging cash and local laws to place vulnerable areas out of the reach of developers and poachers. 

As the name implies, it was a field of science primarily concerned with protecting and maintaining wild habitats as they already were - a science that postured itself in opposition to the capitalist pressures of development and change.

''The problem is, you can't protect enough,'' says Rebecca Shaw, chief scientist at the World Wildlife Fund. Over the past few decades, as the rate of global development has increased to a dizzying speed, traditional conservation has struggled - and failed - to keep up.

'' As the more tried-and-true prevention activities aren't addressing the problem adequately at scale, you start getting more and more far-fetched examples of how to handle little pieces of it,'' Ms. Shaw adds.

IN SHORT, conservationists are being forced to think outside the box. And given the multitude and urgency of threats that wild flora and fauna face, the stakes of their initiatives have never been higher. But neither has the risk of error.

''There's along history,'' Ms. Shaw says, ''of very bad decisions by people who were very passionate about their solutions.''

The Essay, Research and Publishing continues into the future. The World Students Society thanks author Tim McDonnell.


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