Wednesday, April 30, 2008

To Save a Species from Extinction, Get People to Eat It ?

Kim Severson writing in today's New York Times
considers the proposition that the way to save a species from extinction is to convince people to eat it. If they love it they will demand that it be preserved.

I've been mulling over this proposition for a long time beginning, I think, in the late 1970's when I began formal studies in ecology and the forces that control plant and animal distribution. The proposition seems reasonable enough until you scratch beneath surface and realize that while it may work for heirloom varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals, when it is applied to wild plants and animals encouraging people to eat things does not in any way guarantee their survival.

Take the domestic cow (Bos taurus) for example, an animal that now one would argue is in danger of extinction. All domestic cattle have been bred from the Auroch a wild ancestor (Bos primigenius) that lived in Europe until it was hunted out of existence in the 17th century. Populations of widely eaten species of wild fish such as cod and redfish are under intense pressure from overfishing and some will doubtless become extinct. The ancestors of the domestic chicken still exist in the wild, but their genomes have apparently been altered due to accidental cross-breeding (back-breeding) with domesticated birds.

Wild plants and fungi that are prized at the table fare no better. Foraging for gastronomically prized species of plants like ginseng and mushrooms like chanterelles, morels, truffles puts intense pressure on natural populations and in no way guarantees their survival. Frankly, there are thousands of species of plants, fungi, and animals that have been driven into extinction because people liked to eat them. And those that have been "preserved" because they have been farmed or husbanded, are in many cases so genetically distinct from their wild ancestors that if one of those ancestors would suddenly reappear, it would not be able to breed successfully (produce fertile offspring) with it's domesticated form. This would almost certainly be the case with the domestic cow Bos taurus, and the auroch Bos primigenuis since they are recognized as separate species.*

I think that once humans came on the scene, the game was pretty much over for anything that got in the way of our appetites. Once we choose to eat some wild thing, it is either doomed to extinction or we work on it's mutability until it becomes something else. Of course, there are many exceptions. It's not a plant or an animal but the algae that is used to make nori exists abundantly in the wild, and then there stop while I'm behind.

* A species is an organism that can breed "normally" (without help from us) with other organisms of the same species and produce fertile offspring.

Actually, the fertility-of-the-offspring test is often more important in determining if two organisms represent a single or two separate species. For example, a donkey (Equus asinus) and a horse (Equus caballus) are considered to be separate species because even though they can breed without our help, their offspring (mules) are always sterile.


Linda said...

I, also, do not agree with the kind of logic that says to save something we must convince people to eat it. Living in a rural environment, however, I must admit that some of the biggest protectors of our wildlife are the hunters and organizations like Ducks Unlimited. And these people here, for the most part, eat what they kill.

Ed Bruske said...

Bob, this is why I think the only correct policy is to stop eating wild fish altogether. We could survive nicely on fried catfish.

Ulla said...

I want to get the spotted pig that is rare, and we have dominque chickens.

mdmnm said...

I don't know- look at the history of fish and animals prized by hunters and recreational fishers over the last hundred and thirty years or so. Many were in a bad way- bison, pronghorn, many type of wild ducks, wild turkey, swans- yet all of those are out of danger, thanks to the efforts of conservation minded sportsmen.
Another couple of examples would be nilgai (an Indian antelope, more running wild in S. Texas than back home in India, where they will surely go extinct) and ringneck pheasants.
In contrast to cod, redfish are in no danger of a population crash. Why? Starting in the 1980's the CCA (Coastal Conservation Ass'n, then the Gulf Coast Conservation Ass'n, a sport fishermen group) lobbied successfully in Texas and then other states to have redfish declared a game fish, to limit or ban netting and trotlining, and to restrict recreational harvest further. There are more redfish today than there were thirty years ago.

Maybe the way to save a species is to convince people to _hunt_ it, as hunters love their prey.

Bob del Grosso said...

Linda, mdmm

I agree that sport hunters are typically the best stewards of game animals but people who harvest wild organisms for financial gain have a terrible track record.

I'll bet The CCA could have put limits on commercial catches only and saved the redfish populations. The number of fish taken by sport fisherman was a tiny fraction of what the seiners were taking. I'll bet the only reason that they put limits on sport fishers of redfish was to make what they were doing look fair to the commercial guys.

Ulla said...

My comment was more to the NYS article. Your post is very interesting, and is something you can not help but ponder when working with animals. Nature is a fascinating business.
Human's are the worlds most successful animal, and as a result dogs and pigs two of the most successful mammals after us--because of their alliance/use to us.
fun fact:Hunters give more money to conservation then ANY other organization in America.

mdmnm said...

Agreed, the tragedy of the commons seems to play out with distressing regularity when talking about commercial harvest of any wild species and your critique of the article is well taken in that respct. Still, sportsmen have been instrumental in pulling quite a few species back from the brink, as well as ending commercial harvest of almost all wild animals in North America.
Have you read Michael Pollan's "The Botany of Desire"? He looks at the apple, tulip, marijuana, and the potato in terms of distribution and genetic success via humans in that book.

Bob del Grosso said...

I read and liked "Botany of Desire" and I take your point. But I think the situation is not so simple and that eating and or domesticating something does not always assure it's survival in the wild or the survival of the "original wild form."

I think when you talk about modern domesticated animals you are, occasionally, able to find their ancestors running around in the wild. But this is largely because in most cases domestication happened pretty recently. The wild forms of dogs are still around, but in some cases (wolves) may not be around much longer.

Anyway if you go way back to pre-agricultural times what you find is that many of the large land animals that people chose to eat were hunted to extinction.
(You might like to read "Guns Germs and Steel" by Jared Diamond on this.)

And it's still going on.

I would not be surprised if some species of shark become extinct in our lifetimes because of trophy fishing, demand for shark fins for soup and medicine etc.

Ulla said...

I agree. I have read that book. It is great, another book I like that sort of follows the same idea is Non Zero by Robert Wright. He uses game theory to demonstrate the cultural arc that humanity has made. It is pretty optimistic and talks about how good ideas bring us all up. Hopefully, we will be able to come up with a "good idea" for the current state affairs with endangered species and environments. I have heard that when the central Asian people's crossed the bairing straight they were able to populate the two continents in only 8000 years, and with that vast expansion the fauna was changed forever: they were responsible for the extinction of many animals(as you stated). We are an animal that is better at killing then any other---some think this is a bad thing. There is a big difference between SMART hunting and fishing and non-smart hunting and fishing. As an Icelander I support whaling more then I do the harvesting of mass quantities of cod. I know that sharks are falling victim to massive fishing in Asia. With a growing middle class in China, I foresee what you say coming true, more extinctions in our lifetime. Now you have made me sound like an environmentalist!

linda said...

I do not buy from people who "harvest wild organisms," even though we do have some of those in my county. Actually, I am not a hunter but I do own some acreage so I allow some hunting friends access to my property in exchange for some of the meat.

I also have a friend who has his own Alaskan fishing boat and he supplies a large network of friends in north Idaho with enough salmon and halibut to last through the winter.

We also have some local people who raise Scottish Highland beef, Yak, and various kings of goats and sheep. The need to keep too many males out of the herd allows for a nice selection of hormone and anti-biotic free meats.

If I have any gripe at all, it's that locals toss the offals....but sometimes I get lucky and get the tongue, heart, and liver. The local USDA butcher won't even cut you the lungs or kidneys.... although I've heard rumor that our local vet keeps some of the testicles from the various castrations he performs....

Anonymous said...

I agree with a lot of what you say, but wild mushroom foraging is actually fairly sustainable. The actual living organism lives underground, and is undisturbed by foragers, the mushrooms themselves are only fruits of that organism.