Resurrection Science: Conservation, De-Extinction and the Precarious Future of Wild Things

Resurrection Science: Conservation, De-Extinction and the Precarious Future of Wild Things

by M. R. O'Connor


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**A Library Journal Best Book of 2015 **

**A Christian Science Monitor Top Ten Book of September**

In a world dominated by people and rapid climate change, species large and small are increasingly vulnerable to extinction. In Resurrection Science, journalist M. R. O'Connor explores the extreme measures scientists are taking to try and save them, from captive breeding and genetic management to de-extinction. Paradoxically, the more we intervene to save species, the less wild they often become. In stories of sixteenth-century galleon excavations, panther-tracking in Florida swamps, ancient African rainforests, Neanderthal tool-making, and cryogenic DNA banks, O'Connor investigates the philosophical questions of an age in which we "play god" with earth's biodiversity.

Each chapter in this beautifully written book focuses on a unique species—from the charismatic northern white rhinoceros to the infamous passenger pigeon—and the people entwined in the animals' fates. Incorporating natural history and evolutionary biology with conversations with eminent ethicists, O'Connor's narrative goes to the heart of the human enterprise: What should we preserve of wilderness as we hurtle toward a future in which technology is present in nearly every aspect of our lives? How can we co-exist with species when our existence and their survival appear to be pitted against one another?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781137279293
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/15/2015
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

M.R. O'CONNOR’s reporting has appeared in Foreign Policy, Slate, The Atlantic, Nautilus and The New Yorker. Her work has received support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, The Nation Institute's Investigative Fund, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. In 2016 she was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT. A graduate of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, she lives in Flatbush, Brooklyn.

Read an Excerpt

Resurrection Science

Conservation, De-extinction and the Precarious Future of Wild Things

By M. R. O'Connor

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2015 M. R. O'connor
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7932-4



Nectophrynoides asperginis

On a blazing hot afternoon, Kim Howell sat in his office at the University of Dar es Salaam, crammed with the detritus of forty years of biological research, and plucked a small glass jar from dozens of bottles balanced on a shelf.

"This is it," he said. "It really doesn't look like much."

Floating in the faintly amber liquid was a tiny frog. Brownish skin, pointy nose, it belied nothing significant in appearance. Howell, a kindly white-haired giant with Coke- bottle glasses, had other jars that looked more interesting — floating bats and snakes, each one the subject of his wide-ranging biological curiosity. But perhaps none was so precious as the tiny frog, a species listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) most-restricted list, Appendix I, reserved for rare and critically threatened species of the world, such as rhinoceroses and tigers. He was the first person in the world to discover the tiny amphibian and gave the species its name, Nectophrynoides asperginis, inspired by the Latin aspergo, meaning "spray."

It certainly wasn't the first species Howell discovered. "I found new species of spider, tapeworm, I've had stuff named after me," he said. Among them are a shrew and a subspecies of bird. "What else?" he wonders aloud, trying to reach back through the decades. "A lizard. I think the bird is called a yellow streaked green bull. And then the lizard is called Lygodactylus kimhowelli." What is it like to discover a new species? I asked. "It is exciting when you see something that's new. You don't want to say you're the first person to have seen it before, but nobody has ever described it or photographed it or bothered to say, 'Yes, this one is probably new.'" Nonetheless, he pointed out, the novelty can wear off. "It's fairly normal for a biologist who's working with smaller animals to find new species. If you are an insect person you can find hundreds. Or mites or ticks. If you work on elephants and buffalo the chances are much smaller of course."

Howell's office at the University of Dar es Salaam feels like a universe away from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he was born and raised. His ticket out of the small industrial town was an acceptance letter to Cornell University, where he paid for his degree in vertebrate zoology by working in the school's Laboratory of Natural Sound, preserving archival recordings of birdcalls collected in Africa during the early twentieth century. After four years, Howell wanted nothing more than to go to Africa himself, though the Vietnam War also played a role. As a conscientious objector, he needed an alternative service approved by the American government. In 1969 he chose a "wild card option in the middle of nowhere Zambia" where he taught science at a remote elementary school. At the end of that first year, he traveled north to Tanzania where he worked at a school for children of South Africa's apartheid refugees before deciding to stay for good. Howell has lived in Tanzania ever since, raising a daughter with his wife and teaching at the university.

In the early 1990s, Howell was looking through a local newspaper and took note of an unusual ad for employment. Placed by an agency called Norconsult, a Norwegian engineering firm, the ad was soliciting environmental consultants. "There was this hydropower project that was going to be done, and they were looking for someone to look at birds," said Howell. "The location was so far away, I'd never been there. I didn't even know where it was." Howell decided to write to the company but didn't hear anything back for nearly two years. Then, seemingly out of the blue, a man walked into Howell's office and asked if he was interested in doing some studies related to a hydropower dam in the Udzungwa Mountains, one of the southernmost areas of the Eastern Arc Mountains. "I said, 'Sure.' How often do you go someplace no one's ever been to before and get paid for it?" recalled Howell.

In those days the journey from Dar es Salaam to the Udzungwa Mountains took a full day on a dirt road that roughly paralleled the rail lines of the Tanzanian-Zambian railroad, an early development project by the Chinese in Africa laid down in 1968. Villagers in the region use the train tracks as a footpath through the banana trees, sugarcane fields, and lush floodplains of the Kilombero Valley. The Eastern Arc Mountains are made up of basement rock from the Precambrian eon, some of it dating back 3.2 billion years. Around 30 million years ago, the crust fissured, cracked, and faulted, and pushed the rock into the form of a crescent-shaped mountain range cambering through East Africa. The uplift separated the Arcs from the main Guineo-Congolian forest of west and central Africa, birthing a kind of archipelago of primeval forest that was kept stable by consistent temperatures and high rainfall from the nearby Indian Ocean.

The mountain range is sometimes called Africa's "Galapagos Islands" because there are thirteen mountain "islands," each with their own unique variations of species and habitat but part of the same original geological event and climate. Each of these islands became a laboratory of natural selection by virtue of its isolation, giving rise to unique trajectories of species and an endemism unrivaled in the world. Biologists today have recorded ninety-six vertebrates and over 800 endemic plant species (including thirty-one species of African violet alone) in the Arcs. The stability of the climate may also have reduced the rate of extinction, which scientists determine by the number of genetically ancient species they find present in the forests. DNA analysis of some forest birds in the Eastern Arcs shows lineages stretching back to the early Miocene epoch some 20 million years ago. Much of the fauna reveals a greater connection to Madagascar than continental Africa, with other birds showing commonality with subspecies originating in Southeast Asia — back when a single continent called Pangaea covered the globe.

Deep in the Udzungwa Mountains, a river of water cut through the forest and over a steep gorge, creating a plunging waterfall. From top to bottom, the gorge is roughly two miles long and drops nearly 3,000 feet. Unlike nearly every other river and stream in Tanzania, what became known as the Kihansi River didn't shrink during the dry season. Twelve months of the year, the waterfall inside the gorge was so powerful that the cascades could be seen from miles away against the thick verdant rainforest — majestic and inaccessible. Around 1984, the Tanzanian government began studying the waterfall as a possible site for a hydropower project, recognizing that it appeared to have the perfect combination of features needed to generate an incredible amount of electricity in a country that had very little. "There are two major factors that play an important role," said Rafik Hajiri, a water resources expert. "One is the stable hydrology and the second is the drop. And Kihansi has both. It has one of the most stable hydrologies that we know of in the country. And second, the drop is just amazing."

It was the Tanzanian government's hydropower project — funded by the World Bank — that Howell and a team of biologists were hired to conduct an environmental impact assessment (EIA) for. But from the moment they arrived they knew something wasn't right. "We were conducting our studies literally one step ahead of the bulldozers," recalled John Gerstle, the man who walked into Howell's office in 1994 and ran the assessment for Norconsult. Normally, Gerstle explained, ground for such a large- scale development project wouldn't be broken until the EIA was complete. In fact, the World Bank had commissioned an EIA in 1991, but it had later been determined to be completely inadequate.

A slim, fifty-page document, it was written by a Kenyan PhD student who undertook two ten-day trips to the area around Kihansi, interviewing villagers and showing them pictures in field guides of birds and mammals to see which fauna were present in the forest. At the end of the report, the student surmised: "The area to be lost is so small that it will not be a serious environmental loss and is most unlikely to threaten extinction of any of the endemic species as they also exist in other parts of the U[d]zungwa forest. The loss of habitat is a small price to pay for the economic benefits of power generation." Anna Maembe, a senior staff member at Tanzania's National Environmental Management Council, explained that at the time, the country had no legal requirements regarding EIAs. "People did it to go to the banks to get loans and so on," she said. "It wasn't based on government support, on a legal premise."

The World Bank did have internal policies for undertaking EIAs and had rated the Kihansi project "Category A," requiring a full assessment. "There was an attempt to do that [assessment], but the problem was it wasn't done as comprehensively as one would have expected," said Jane Kibbassa, senior environmental specialist at the World Bank in Tanzania. In 1994, the decision to finance the hydropower project came before the World Bank's board of directors, and it was in part the EIA that they considered in their decision to approve the $200 million loan to the government of Tanzania to start construction on the project. When the European Bank, Norway, Sweden, and Germany's development agencies came on board as donors a year later, however, they balked at the assessment and made a new one a condition of their participation. "It was a bit late," said Gerstle, "because the decision had already been made to build the project. The reasoning was they were just desperate to get new capacity because there were continuous rolling blackouts. It was very severe."

Tanzania was, and remains, a country mostly in the dark. Shopping at a mall in Dar es Salaam, a sudden blackout will leave people standing in a department store checkout line in pitch-blackness until a generator hopefully kicks in. The power outages are not just a frequent annoyance: electricity shuts off without notice multiple times a week, and outages can last for hours, grinding to a halt the activities of businesses and schools. For three months in 2009, the semi-autonomous archipelago of Zanzibar had zero electricity after an old, ill-maintained undersea cable that connected it to the power grid on the Tanzanian mainland failed. Villagers in Zanzibar recall their childhood as times when they had more consistent and cheaper access to electricity (and hence running water and refrigeration) than they do today. The problem is enormous in scale: access to electricity in Tanzania, where 73 percent of the population survives on less than $2 per day, is around 39 percent for people in urban areas, but only 2 percent of people in rural areas can get power, according to the United Nations Development Program. Tanzania's per capita use of electricity is small even by sub-Saharan levels. The people of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has been roiled in civil war for decades, have greater access to electricity than Tanzanians. North Korea produces more electricity.

"Tanzania is seriously underinvested and has been for a long time in modern energy," said John McIntire, former World Bank country director for Tanzania, Uganda, and Burundi. "What this means is that people don't have access to the cold chain for preserving products, for keeping medicines cold. And you get other indirect effects of a lack of electricity. It's a thing that allows people to work at night, which is important in a hot climate. It's a labor-saving device for some things that you just can't do by applying more and more labor." But the conflict between protecting biodiversity and eradicating poverty is uncomfortably direct. "The international community has to understand that these countries need electricity," argued McIntire. "It's not just for the rich countries to say, 'Well, we've got plenty of electricity but you can't because of the environmental externalities in your countries.'" McIntire connects the lack of electricity with diminished productivity, but some experts go further, putting a scarcity of power at the root of poverty in Africa itself. The American economist Paul Romer believes that Africans do not lack electricity because they are poor: "Indeed, reliable power is so important for education, productivity, and job creation that it would be more accurate to say that many in Africa are poor because they don't have electricity."

Tanzania's parastatal power company, Tanesco, was infamously mismanaged and inefficient. In 1990 the World Bank began formulating a development aid package known as "Tanzanian Power VI Project," an initiative intended to aid the country's power company during a wider transition to a market-oriented economy. The plan, the bank claimed, would increase Tanesco's attractiveness to private investors, revamp its infrastructure, and help end the bad practices that kept poor Tanzanians without electricity. It was a loan that the bank was happy to give: Tanzania joined the World Bank Group in 1962 and over the years received $6.2 billion in credits. The Kihansi Hydropower Project in the Udzungwas constituted a major portion of this new plan; once completed, it would increase the country's power capacity by more than 40 percent. It was Tanesco's bulldozers, paid for by the World Bank, that the biologists scrambled to work ahead of at Kihansi.

Kim Howell and the team of biologists conducting the new EIA lived in tents in the forest during their field visits to take surveys of the flora and fauna. Not far from their camp, the hydropower project grew in scale, bringing thousands of people from around the world. Chinese workers built the access road from the bottom of the mountain to the future dam site. The labor camps operated like small cities, with dispensaries and pubs full of Italian, Portuguese, South American, Spanish, and Swedish workers. The Norwegians were in charge of the man-made underground powerhouse. The Mauritians ran the canteens. The South Africans worked on top of the mountain, digging the 1,300-foot vertical shaft that would reroute the water into the heart of the mountain toward turbines that would convert the energy of the drop into electricity. They chipped away at the rock with hand tools and sent the debris up in buckets. The construction of the dam had an immediate environmental impact: thousands of Tanzanians flooded to the area as though it were a gold rush, hoping to benefit economically from the project but pushing out wildlife at the same time. "The floodplains used to be filled with hippos and now there are none," said Steinar Evenson, a Norwegian engineer who worked on the dam. As he spoke he mimicked someone holding a gun and firing round after round. "They killed them all but nobody cares. They are too big. And too dangerous." Game wardens brought in from Mkumi National Park, he said, killed three male lions during construction in order to protect the growing villages of people.

Meanwhile, the team of biologists set bucket traps in the ground to catch snakes, mice, and amphibians, but they found no new or endemic species. Everything that fell in their buckets could be found somewhere else in the Eastern Arcs. The ever-present backdrop to their toiling was the one place they couldn't get to: the waterfall itself. This inaccessibility was a frustrating reminder that whatever new assessment they issued was going to be incomplete. "From an ecological point of view, the base of the waterfall has to be the most significant part of the entire gorge," said Peter Hawkes, a South African entomologist who worked on the EIA. "We went there at the end of the dry season and you could still see this massive cloud of spray." In hindsight, the biologists have conflicting theories about why they couldn't reach the spray zone. Hawkes said their local guides didn't want the biologists to see illegal logging by villagers that was taking place, and intentionally misled them. Howell said he doesn't think there was ever a clear path to get there. "You could hear it and you could see it," said Howell of the waterfall. "I have in my notes that twice I fell trying to get into the spray zone."

In December 1995, the team issued their assessment, a three-volume tome. "We didn't feel too bad about the dam. Yes, we're going to lose some stuff if the gorge dried out," summarized Howell. "But our caveat was that we could not get into the spray zone." Despite the completion of the EIA, Gerstle believed that the team should continue to meet at Kihansi in order to conduct longer-term monitoring. In December 1996, they assembled for a planning workshop and settled into camp. Gerstle suggested they see how far they could get up to the waterfall, and they were amazed to discover a new path, most likely made by Tanesco in order to install a rain gauge near the waterfall.


Excerpted from Resurrection Science by M. R. O'Connor. Copyright © 2015 M. R. O'connor. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents



The Ark of Toads

Nectophrynoides asperginis


Tracking Chimeras in the Fakahatchee Strand

Puma concolor coryi


Exuberant Evolution in a Desert Fish

Cyprinodon tularosa


Mysteries of the Whale Called 1334

Eubalaena glacialis


Freezing Crows

Corvus hawaiiensis


Metaphysical Rhinos

Ceratotherium simum cottoni


Passenger Pigeon Regenesis

Neo-Ectopistes migratorius


Nice to Meet You, Neanderthal

Homo neanderthalensis


Ends of the Earth




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