Picture ancient humans: dressed in skins, using bone tools. Since the dawn of time our fate has been inextricably linked to the creatures around us, as we have taken parts of animals and repurposed them to our benefit. The mandate and challenge has always been to do so responsibly and respectfully. But now, with the contemporary consumption of an ever-expanding human population raging out of control, how will we share our planet with other living creatures?
Over the past century, wildlife conservation has been seen as a noble endeavor that exhibits “the best” of humanity by committing to biodiversity, rejecting animal cruelty, and understanding that humans only truly benefit when the whole planet thrives. Yet, the unfortunate truth is that some fundamental assumptions of the entrenched NGO model of conservation may be deeply flawed, and the policies that translate these into action ineffectual at best. It is difficult to change established cultural traditions and in trying to do so, incentives matter. Even though globally many agree it’s ‘right’ to preserve wildlife and move away from animal consumption in general, there’s little enticement to change our behavior. A case study in conservation’s ‘incentive failure’ is wildlife trafficking, the largest illegal trade in the world after drugs, guns and humans.
Take the rhinoceros, being poached to extinction as the price for their horn soar up to $60,000 per kilo, worth more than gold and cocaine combined. International regulation agencies and wildlife protection services have been scrambling to stem the flow, but the black horn rhino population is down almost 98% since 1960. This is of course catastrophic for these animals—and the elephants, lions, and tigers similarly hunted for their tusks, bones, and claws—but the fight to protect iconic large game also saps much-needed resources that could otherwise be used to preserve a wider swath of endangered species. And it’s not just animals in jeopardy. The fight against international trafficking networks has been compared to war, costing hundreds of millions of dollars and putting human life at risk.
The demand for exotic wildlife is financially driven—increasing scarcity hikes up the price, so buying horn is like buying a Picasso. Even governments guard stockpiles of confiscated horn, worth billions on the black market. Meanwhile centuries-old cultural traditions prize the curative properties of animal parts, and will pay top dollar for the chance to reverse such ills as impotence or cancer. These multiple motivations dovetail with inequality and instability in poachers’ communities. The establishment of African wildlife reserves, imagined to be protected in their pristine state, has often displaced local people. Traditional hunters uprooted from their land poach for basic survival or the money to educate their kids. In an all too familiar colonialist narrative, affluent, predominantly white NGO outsiders then decide they know how best to manage the local land and animals without accounting for the perspectives of indigenous people. This creates an adversarial relationship where locals feel animals are saved at their expense, leaving them no incentive to collaborate. Given this complexity, the problem seems intractable. Conservation leaders themselves have begged for fresh ideas, hoping the solution might come from outside their fold.
One exciting new approach can be found in the seemingly unrelated world of synthetic biology, a fast growing field of technology innovated by a community no less utopian or committed than conservationists. Cross-disciplinary collaboration between scientists and designers now means bioengineering can clone and manufacture organic materials previously thought untouchable. Plants, organs, and animal skins and scales are already being used in both medicine and fashion, and this is just the beginning of what biofabrication can do.
Proponents believe biofabrication might succeed in combatting the black-market trade of exotic wildlife where other approaches have failed because it chooses to complement rather than demonize or belittle centuries-old traditions of animal use, realizing a workable solution must be economically beneficial and culturally compatible with the communities whose lives are most intimately intertwined with wildlife. Biotech could blend futuristic technology with fundamental human behaviors to meet enduring needs and desires. But the process raises hard questions. Do biofabricated materials actually condone the brutal exploitation of animal material and encourage its trade? More fundamentally, should we take the raw materials of life, nature’s blueprint encoded in DNA, and tailor it for human improvement, enhancement and profit? The question of whether to protect nature by biofabricating its genetic replica in a lab or conserving it in as pristine a condition possible is at heart a moral dilemma.
We may not have much time to think this all through. Alarmed by biofabrication’s market-based logic, which is criticized as at best uninformed and at worst catastrophic to conservation efforts, numerous conservation NGOs, such as the Humane Society, the Center for Biological Diversity and Wild Aid, are petitioning to outlaw the practice before it can do potential harm. An upcoming international vote in 2019 will ultimately determine its fate across the globe.
Should the precautionary principle apply: “If you have doubt, you cannot go forward”? Or should we proceed with caution and try the radically new approach of biofabrication, which might save wild animals where all other efforts have failed even though there are no guarantees? These urgent questions are part of an ongoing human dilemma: How can we engage with new technologies, tempering distrust or euphoria with a clearheaded understanding that might translate into effective policy? The answers just might determine the nature of the conservation endeavor in the 21st century and beyond.