What do we want to save from extinction?

By Ben Garlick, York St John University

Loch an Eilean Castle

Loch an Eilean Castle, where ospreys reportedly nested from at least 1808 until 1898. Photo by the Ben Garlick, July 2014.

The International Union for the Conservation of nature (IUCN) recently announced that nearly a third of all species surveyed are threatened with extinction. Such alarming extinction levels add weight to the thesis that we have entered a new epoch in our planet’s history – the age of humans, or the ‘Anthropocene’.

Mounting realisation and anxiety around the scale of biodiversity loss infuse conservation projects with palpable urgency. Ever more creative, experimental and open-ended strategies are proposed to reverse human damage (Lorimer and Driessen, 2014). Talk of eco-restoration, re-wilding, even ‘de-extinction’ offer sci-fi-tinged solutions.

For example, earlier this summer, sea eagles (Haliaetus albicilla) bred on Orkney for the first time in 95 years following reintroduction in 2013. Rendered extinct in Britain in 1918 following persecution, these birds have been the subject of several successful twentieth-century re-introduction schemes since the 1970s. A healthy population now nests on Scotland’s west coast.

Such an example is interesting because it raises questions about what extinction involves and objectives of conservation. What, in this case, are trying to save or restore? Are the eagles breeding on Orkney today equivalent to those of the past? Furthermore, if a species can return from extinction, then what did we actually lose when they disappeared? Are there some registers in which their loss can still be felt, and made to matter?

In my own research (Garlick, 2018), I explore such questions through the history of conserving another once-lost British raptor: the osprey (Pandion haliaetus). Like sea eagles, ospreys have returned to the UK – albeit under their own agency – despite having been wiped out at the hands of Victorian naturalist-collectors and gamekeepers by 1916. Attempts to nest in the latter 1950s were stewarded by the RSPB, most famously at Loch Garten, Speyside, where the public can still visit them today.

Though a success story of practical and dedicated conservation efforts, considering the birds’ existence prior to their eradication can complicate this triumphant narrative of return. The ospreys which exist in Britain today might be biologically near-identical to those of before, but they are not the same birds. Something remains lost.

Victorian naturalists’ describing the ospreys resident during the nineteenth century recall a tendency to nest on rocky crags and ruined human structures, such as the castle at Loch an Eilein, Speyside (Image). Some accounts even assert that these birds always nested on such structures, ignoring trees in the vicinity. Today, it is clear that ospreys the world over demonstrate a variable tolerance for different nest sites. Despite an increasing tendency to nest on human structures (like pylons), and tolerate human disturbance, British birds overwhelmingly nest in trees. Their former rock and ruin haunts sit empty. Why?

Male ospreys have a strong tendency to return to their birth-region upon maturity. Young ospreys often colonise sites that resemble the situation of their own fledging and prefer to inherit an existing nest rather than build from scratch (Dennis, 2008). All of this means that ospreys have the capacity to develop an affinity for particular kinds of places. Pair monogamy and faith to successful nests see structures maintained and used for generations. I argue that we might understand such nesting traditions as osprey ‘culture’: an inherited, communally shared, characteristic ‘way of life’ (Anderson et al, 2002). Nesting preferences, accruing over time, mark these ospreys as different to others: a distinct expression of osprey life, with a particular orientation towards the geography of nesting.

Ecological restoration, re-wilding, and de-extinction are increasingly championed as viable strategies for repairing, perhaps reversing, the damage done by humans. But such strategies also tend to identify and declare the survival of species at the genetic level. Some animals are sacrificed, killed or kept as captive breeders, to ensure the health of an abstract ‘population’ of creatures, with particular averaged characteristics and shared attributes.

Yet elsewhere, a concern with nonhuman ‘cultural life’ that challenges the notion of interchangeable biological beings does permeate conservation practice. There is a desire to conserve ‘authentic beings’, and ensure that captively bred animals obtain the necessary life experiences, behaviours, and learned ‘knowledge’ to survive a way of life in the wild (van Dooren, 2016). Conservation strategies can be designed to account for the cultural dimensions of animal life.

You can visit Loch an Eilein today (see the image at the beginning of this post) and see the empty castle for yourself. Does this emptiness matter? I think so. It suggests that the losses of extinction echo beyond the absence or presence of particular biological bodies. It suggests today’s birds are, even if only in a small way, qualitatively different.

We should not become accustomed to thinking that the ability to re-introduce, or re-create, past biological species means that all environmental damage can be undone. This slippery slope, as geographers have recognised (Lorimer 2015), leads to the evocation of fungible natures, justifying unbridled development on the condition that degradation is ‘made good’ elsewhere. Alternatively, realising that no return is clean, and that some things remain lost, might encourage us to reckon with what is truly at stake in the contemporary environmental crisis.

About the author: Ben Garlick is a lecturer in Human Geography with the School of Humanities, Religion, and Philosophy at York St John University. 

References

Anderson, K., Domosh, M., Pile, S., & Thrift, N. (Eds.) (2002). Handbook of cultural geography. London, UK: Sage.

Dennis, R. (2008). A life of ospreys. Cathness, UK: Whittles Publishing.

van Dooren, T. (2016). Authentic crows: Identity, captivity and emergent forms of life. Theory, Culture & Society, 33, 29–52.

Garlick, B. (2018) Cultural geographies of extinction: Animal culture among Scottish ospreys. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12268. 1-16.

Lorimer, J. (2015). Wildlife in the Anthropocene: Conservation after nature. London, UK: University of Minnesota Press.

Lorimer, J., & Driessen, C. (2014). Wild experiments at the Oostvaardersplassen: Rethinking environmentalism in the Anthropocene. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 39, 169–181.

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