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Science is getting closer to bringing back extinct animals like the woolly mammoth, but a new analysis of the economics of de-extinction suggests that conservation funding is better spent on the living.

Mauricio Antón

Bringing extinct species back from the dead could hurt—not help—conservation efforts

Ten days ago, science news media outlets around the world reported that a Harvard University–led team was on the verge of resurrecting the wooly mammoth. Although many articles oversold the findings, the concept of de-extinction—bringing extinct animals back to life through genetic engineering—is beginning to move from the realm of science fiction to reality. Now, a new analysis of the economics suggests that our limited conservation funding would be better spent elsewhere.

“The conversation thus far has been focused on whether or not we can do this. Now, we are progressing toward the: ‘Holy crap, we can—so should we?’ phase,” says Douglas McCauley, an ecologist at University of California, Santa Barbara, who was not involved in the study. “It is like we’ve just about put the last stiches in [Frankenstein's monster], and there is this moment of pause as we consider whether it is actually a good idea to flip the switch and electrify the thing to life.”

To estimate how much it would cost to sustain a population of de-extincted animals, researchers used databases from New South Wales, Australia, and New Zealand that methodically track the cost of conserving endangered, but still living, species. This allowed the scientists to extrapolate the cost of preserving resurrected animals that are similar to living analogs. The cost of caring for a population of resurrected mammoths, for instance, should be similar to the cost of caring for the endangered Asian elephant. The approach completely ignores the large up-front cost of developing and using the genetic and biological technologies to actually resurrect the species. So it underestimates the actual cost of de-extinction programs, the authors say. Even so, the results look grim.

The team considered two different scenarios: one in which the government assumes responsibility for the conservation of resurrected species, and another where private companies sponsor the project. In the first scenario, the money needed to maintain the population of resurrected animals comes directly out of the government’s conservation budget, meaning all existing conservation efforts lose some funding. The result, the team calculates, would be an overall loss of biodiversity—roughly two species would go extinct for every one that could be revived.

In the second scenario, where the costs are absorbed by private interests and don’t detract from the already limited conservation budget, the researchers calculate that we could see a small uptick in biodiversity, especially for animals for which the necessary conservation tools and techniques are already being used to conserve existing endangered species. Reviving the Forbes’ snipe (Coenocorypha chathamica), a long-billed bird native to New Zealand that went extinct sometime around the 19th century, for example, would create a net biodiversity gain in New Zealand because many of the conservation practices needed by the snipe are already being carried out for other species living on its former habitat of Chatham Island.

However, the results also show that if instead of focusing the money on de-extinction, one allocated it into existing conservation programs for living species, we would see a much bigger increase in biodiversity—roughly two to eight times more species saved. In other words, the money would be better spent elsewhere to prevent existing species from going extinct in the first place, the team reports today in Nature Ecology and Evolution.

There’s always the chance that a wealthy individual or company will get excited by the charisma of de-extinction and choose to fund such a project. If this money would otherwise not have gone to conservation programs of any type, then it would represent a small win for the planet’s biodiversity, the authors say.

“If that billionaire is only interested in bringing back a species from the dead, power to him or her,” says first author Joseph Bennett, a biologist at Carleton University in Ottawa. “However, if that billionaire is couching it in terms of it being a biodiversity conservation, then that’s disingenuous. There are plenty of species out there on the verge of extinction now that could be saved with the same resources.”

For McCauley, who recently published a set of guidelines for selecting de-extinction species that would do the most good for the ecosystem, the new research is sobering. “The dominant message in this analysis appears to be that doing de-extinction en masse would be counterproductive,” he says. “If this is ethically messy, ecologically awkward, and now also really expensive—I’m out.”

Conceptually, de-extinction is certainly still cool. But as a conservation tool in a world of shoestring budgets, Bennett sums up the paper’s findings succinctly: “It’s better to spend the money on the living than the dead.”