Saving the White Rhino: Cloning Over Conservation?
The animal kingdom suffered a great loss recently when Angalifu, one of the last six remaining northern white rhinoceroses,†passed away at the San Diego Zoo. The death was also a renewed reminder that, without significant intervention, extinction looms for this species. So far, the most popular suggestion for saving these rhinos is a controversial one: cloning.
The scientific capabilities necessary for cloning the rhino arenít exactly there yet, but thatís not stopping conservationists from freezing Angalifuís DNA to use in the future following future advancements. Theyíre hopeful that, one day, theyíll be able to bring back the animal with help from a laboratory.
Thatís good news. Or, well, it might be good news. Itís also kind of worrisome because now it looks like the best bet for saving animals from extinction is cloning over actual conservation. Given that the science is still theoretical at this point, thatís a dangerous prospect with no guarantees.
While cloning has proven more successful with domesticated animals, attempts with endangered animals have never quite worked out. As Scientific American points out, itís partially a matter of having an adequate supply. Even with common animals, it can take over 100 embryos to ultimately produce a single clone. It also requires plenty off female eggs, which can be hard to come by in endangered animals, particularly since these threatened creatures generally have reproductive issues to start.
At the same time, assuming these rhinos can one day be sufficiently cloned, what good will it do? Bringing them back to life doesnít tackle the issues that led to their extinction or near-extinction in the first place. Unless habitat destruction, poaching, climate change and other human intrusions are eradicated, putting cloned animals of the same variety back into the wild is likely to yield the same fatal results.
Iíd hardly call it a conservation victory if we clone a few animals, only to then keep them in captivity. Brittany Peet, a deputy director at PETA, agrees. ďWhile itís tragic that humans drove the animals to extinction, the answer is not to produce more northern white rhinos that will never be released into the wild, and will spend their lives being denied everything thatís natural and important to them, and will be gawked at by humans,Ē she said.
Look, things are dire for the northern white rhinoceros. Given that the remaining five rhinos are, generally speaking, past their prime for breeding, the likelihood of natural reproduction occurring for this species is small. Frankly, itís probably too late for traditional conservation efforts to rescue this creature. I donít see the harm in harvesting the DNA from Angalifu and similar endangered creatures to see if it could be useful down the road.
I do, however, worry that banking on this (as yet unproven) plan will make people complacent and cherish cloning over conservation for other animals that can still reasonably be saved. Recreating animals artificially shouldnít replace our attempts to protect the animals we already have.