Joseph Bennett is a conservation biologist and Assistant Professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Research in his lab focusses on statistical and mathematical tools to help prioritize resources to save more species from extinction. His lab also works on incorporating indigenous perspectives in conservation decisions, efficient methods of managing invasive species, and optimizing monitoring for environmental assessments.
De-extinction, the resurrection of extinct species, has been suggested as a solution to our alarming rate of biodiversity decline. If we have the power to bring species back from extinction, we may have the power to reverse some of our losses and right past wrongs. However, until now no one has taken a close look at de-extinction in the broader context of conservation biology, comparing it to other options for reversing biodiversity loss.
Our research used detailed datasets on living species threatened with extinction in New Zealand and New South Wales in Australia, to estimate the costs and potential sacrifices involved in using de-extinction as a conservation tool. We used known costs for living species to estimate costs for breeding viable populations of resurrected extinct species and protecting these resurrected species in the wild. Crucially, our cost estimates are conservative: they do not include the cost of initial work to produce the first few individuals of a resurrected species. These costs are unknown, but likely substantial.
Our results clearly show that de-extinction is a poor conservation investment. On average, it would be possible for conservation agencies or private foundations to save two to eight more living species, rather than bringing back one species. If we could have estimated costs of initial genetic work to actually produce a resurrected species (rather than just maintaining it), the balance would likely have been much worse for de-extinction as a conservation tool. Thus, as a conservation investment, de-extinction is a one step forward, two or eight (or even more) steps back scenario.