Back in December, at the San Diego Zoo, a 44-year-old white rhinoceros named Angalifu died. Angalifu was one of the last five white rhinoceroses in the world, and unfortunately, each of the remaining four is unable to reproduce. What does that mean? Well, for now it means that the white rhinoceros is doomed to extinction, at least in its original state.


Angalifu, the late White Rhino.

This isn’t something new. It is hard to know what share of species goes extinct each year, as we don’t even know how many species there are on our wonderful planet. Science’s best estimates are that we lose roughly 0.01% to 0.1% of our species annually, which doesn’t seem that drastic at first, but actually translates to an estimated 10,000 to 100,000 species per year. 100,000! Never should the highlight of a year be a picture of Kim Kardashian on a magazine rather than the incredible amount of animals that died off in that year. In fact, extinction rates are so high, 1,000% to 10,000% higher than past non-altered extinction rates, that many are calling this episode the sixth mass extinction of all time. Keep in mind that historically, a mass extinction has been an asteroid slamming into the Earth. That’s not something we as humans want to emulate, and yet, we are heading toward that magnitude of an event faster than ever, with no real plan to stop it. Of course, we aren’t there just yet. It is estimated that by mid-century 30% to 50% of all species on Earth will go extinct, rivaling both the Triassic/Jurassic extinction and the Late Devonian mass extinction, considered two of the five biggest mass extinctions of all time. We are clearly at a point that we have to start doing something; a third of all amphibians are already going extinct, at a rate of 25,000-45,000 times the background or normal extinction rate. Even primates, our closest relative on this planet, have 50% of their population at risk of extinction. We aren’t on a good path here.

We are heading closer and closer to emulating an event like this.

We are heading closer and closer to emulating an event like this.

I’m not writing this just to depress you, though. We do have some hope, if not a way to stop the ultimate demise of much of the life on earth. As much as I wish it weren’t true, there is most likely no economical way to halt the pace of the industrial growth that is compromising our natural resources and habitats. Based on persistent long-term trends, it appears that sooner or later we will all be living in an urban or suburb environment (or a dustbowl, if you are Matthew McConaughey), and the associated environmental damage will be very hard to reverse. But this doesn’t mean that the affected species can’t come back from the dead. Although we aren’t exactly there yet, with a failed try at bringing an extinct species bucardo (a type of Spanish Ibex) back to life ending in a deformed baby dying soon after birth, we are getting extremely close. We all know that Jurassic Park is a fiction, as even the more recent Woolly Mammoth is too far back in time to clone. But, there are plenty of recently extinct species that are well on their way to being cloned, such as the Hawaii Po’ouli bird and more. This may be commonplace in the future, the cloning and repopulation of dying species. Earth’s animals are precious and define our planet; we want to protect them from our destructive impact for as long as we can. This is the first part in a 4 part series on de-extinction, increasing extinction rates, conservation technology and more. Check back the next installment in the series soon!

Image credit: Bill Marsh