In 2006 a small group of British scientists began collecting specimens and raising funds for the “Frozen Ark,” a kind of database in which the DNA of the world’s foremost endangered animals will be cryogenically frozen and held in the hopes they can be used for research, cloning and population management in the future. The idea is similar to that of the Norwegian government’s, who last year unveiled the design for an ark in which plant seeds will be kept in a vault carved into an ice shelf near the North Pole. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, scientists believe, will safeguard the world’s agricultural biodiversity in the event of nuclear war or a massive natural disaster.
Zoos and aquariums have served as custodians for endangered species for many decades. The California condor, whooping crane, black-footed ferret and Chinese crocodile all benefited from extreme measures taken by zoological institutions to bring individuals out of the wild for captive breeding programs. The major trigger for the idea, according to Chris Wemmer, a conservation biologist and scientist emeritus at the National Zoological Society, was the passage of the Endangered Species Act into law in 1977. “A lot of people became very interested in doing more than just managing collections as zoo curators,” Wemmer said. “There was a groundswell of enthusiasm for the idea that we could save wildlife.”
But for as long as biologists have been using arks as a conservation tool, there has been arguments about its effectiveness. “The real problem was that some people became dyed-in-the-wool advocates for captive breeding,” said Wemmer. “There wasn’t careful assessing of the needs of these different species, the goal was just captive breeding. So there were initiate programs that didn’t set in motion reintroduction plans. It really pissed off people who were concerned with natural habitats and the animals in the wild.” Wemmer cites the Sumatran rhino as one example of a failed ark strategy. Beginning in 1984, American zoos transported 40 of the desperately threatened rhinos out of the wild and attempted to breed them in captivity. By 1997, 20 of the rhinos had died and no calves had been born.
Today, the Cincinatti Zoo has successfully managed the birth of three calves in captivity but the population of Sumatran rhinos in the world hovers around a lowly 300 individuals. According to critics of this specific captive breeding program, the losses in the program were too great to the overall population and recovery rates of rhinos in protected native habitats far exceeds those in captivity. What’s more important, these critics argue, than bringing animals like these out of the wild is using the limited funds available for species preservation for saving species in their natural habitat.
One amphibian biologist who did not wish to be named for fear of losing funding for his own research, echoed this perspective when criticizing the Amphibian Ark project. “It may be that the individuals that get through disease in the wild are the future of the species,” he said from his home in California. “If you take them into the zoo, you cut that off.”
“We’ll never know with any degree of certainty whether these animals can be reintroduced or not,” said Mark Michael, a professor of environmental ethics at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. “There are a lot of environmentalists who say, ‘If you take a species out of the wild and there is very little possibility of reintroducing them, then you shouldn’t do it.’”
Nevertheless, there are others who argue that it’s better to have the species in the world than to let them disappear, even if the animals that remain in zoo are essentially, as Michael said, “museum pieces.” The debate between these two camps goes beyond the scientific and economic issues about the practicality of arks into philosophical territory. Does taking animals out of the wild corrupt a species evolutionary trajectory in an ethical or even aesthetic way? What are the implications of human intervention in the “narrative” of a species existence? Have we naively assumed God’s role in death and creation? Is human intervention “unnatural”?
With the creation of the Frozen Ark, what Michael calls, “the ark concept taken to the extreme,” these questions have taken on greater significance. “If you preserve animals in an artificial habitat with the hope of reintroducing them later, you have an ongoing line, an ongoing story,” said Michael. “But if you are just preserving the DNA and not the animal, you’ve created this huge gap in the story. To what extent is something that is artificially produced by humans valuable? You could have a work of art that is produced by a machine, but is seems as if the reproductions aren’t as valuable as the original.”
In the many cases of severely threatened species today, there may not be enough time find satisfying answers to these questions before there aren’t any options left. For them, the Frozen Ark could represent the only savior.