Jennifer Jacquet on Extinction [1]

JENNIFER JACQUET: Well, I have to go after a philosopher and a physicist, so my talk’s going to be quite literal about the extinction of species. I stay up at night worried about this. Maybe to some of you that’s a normal thing to do. I even spoke to a woman who studied survivor guilt and asked her if she has many patients who complain that the human species is surviving while all these other species go extinct. She said it was "not a presenting symptom." Maybe I’m a little strange. I think it’s a misplaced anxiety about my own mortality.

I am worried about the 870 or so species that have gone extinct since the 16th century, which I would call conspicuous extinction—things that we are watching disappear. Extinction is itself a little misleading because it’s this binary category; you’re either alive, or you’re extinct. We know that while there are these 870 specialist species—and there are certain ones that, to me, stand out—there are also a bunch of other species on the brink, which people like Jonathan Bailie spoke about. I’ll get into those in a moment.

Some of the species that I stay up worrying about and mostly lamenting—I know I’m not alone on this because a friend of mine is torn up that there are no longer giant sloths around—is the Steller's sea cow, which went extinct in 1768 just after twenty-seven years of having been discovered by the Russians, although the Aleuts knew they were there. Another species that I’ll mention and speak about is the Pinta Island giant tortoise, Lonesome George.
The first one, the Steller's sea cow, the largest Sirenian that ever lived and a close relative of the manatee, or the dugong, lived up in the Aleutian territory, Alaska. The records that we have of it are from Georg Steller, the naturalist, and this is an excerpt from his writing I just wanted to share with you because it’s the kind of thing that makes me wish they were still around. He writes:

They are not afraid of man in the least, nor do they seem to hear very poorly, as Hernandez asserts contrary to experience. Signs of a wonderful intelligence, whatever Hernandez might say, I could not observe, but indeed an uncommon love for one another, which even extended so far that when one of them was hooked, all the others were intent upon saving him. Some tried to prevent the wounded comrade from [being drawn on] the beach by [forming] a closed circle around him; some attempted to upset the yawl; others laid themselves over the rope or tried to pull a harpoon out of [his] body, in which indeed they succeeded several times. We also noticed, not without astonishment, that a male came two days in succession to its female which was lying dead on the beach as if he would inform himself about her condition. Nevertheless, no matter how many of them were wounded or killed, they always remained in one place.

Big mistake, sea cow. These are the kind of historical ecological records that we have of the sea cow, which is no longer around and which makes me a little less fulfilled as a human being.
I dream about the sea cow or imagine what they would be like to see in the wild, but the case of the Pinta Island giant tortoise was a particularly strange feeling for me personally because I had spent many afternoons in the Galapagos Islands when I was a volunteer with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in Lonesome George’s den with him. If any of you visited the Galapagos, you know that you can even feed the giant tortoises that are in the Charles Darwin Research Station. This is Lonesome George here.
He lived to a ripe old age but failed, as they pointed out many times, to reproduce. Just recently, in 2012, he died, and with him the last of his species. He was couriered to the American Museum of Natural History and taxidermied there. A couple weeks ago his body was unveiled. This was the unveiling that I attended, and at this exact moment in time I can say that I was feeling a little like I am now: nervous and kind of nauseous, while everyone else seemed calm. I wasn’t prepared to see Lonesome George. Here he is taxidermied, looking out over Central Park, which was strange as well. At that moment realized that I knew the last individual of this species to go extinct. That presents this strange predicament for us to be in in the 21st century—this idea of conspicuous extinction.
As I mentioned, it’s this binary category, but there is another category that scientists like to use: ecological extinction. Again, these are some of the species that have already been mentioned, like the pangolin or things living on the edge. These are species that haven’t had that final curtain call, but they don’t perform their ecological function in the natural world as they once did. The 500 remaining mountain gorillas, or four remaining northern white rhino match this category. There are about 17,000 known species in this category, but a big overlooked group that I work on is in the oceans—fish and wildlife, which we call seafood—are also part of this ecological extinction.
A friend of mine went into—this to me is so conspicuous that it’s happened since the 1950s, since people were taking photographs of the largest fish they’ve ever caught in the Florida Keys—she went into newspapers, and in the archives people had submitted photographs of their best ever fishing day. What’s great is that any time people are submitting photographs to an archive they submit what they think was the best that they did. This is—Loren McClenachan, with credit to her—a sample of some of those photos. Again, this is the Florida Keys, lots of goliath groupers in the ‘50s. This is the sport fishing from this family. Traveling into 1960s, here’s the ‘70s, the early ‘80s, things have already changed.
You can see that snappers have taken over where the goliath grouper once was. The fish are smaller. This is the photo she took while she was there. This is just to show you that these species are not extinct. The goliath grouper is on the endangered species list. It still lives and breathes, but it is not in the same numbers performing the same ecological role as it once did. This, to me, is very conspicuous. We have the photographs to show it, but it’s something that most of us don’t think about regularly.
The final category of extinction is one that economists came up with: economic extinction. It was this idea that species will become so rare that they would be difficult to find and pricey to find, and finding them would be so expensive that no one would go out to hunt them. A lot of work out there has disproven this idea of economic extinction on the fact that rarity actually increases value. Some of the experimenters who have worked with this have done some very clever things to show that rare species—which are the darker bar—people are more willing to climb stairs—this was in a zoo in Paris—to see rare species; they’re more willing to get wet with a sprinkler; they’re more willing to pay to see rare species; they’re more willing to spend time looking at them. They did all these things to just show the psychological tendencies, and this perception that rarity increases value has had some very negative impacts on species. The fact that rarity increases value also shows your wealth to your audience, or increases the likelihood that you want to collect wildlife essentially. When wildlife becomes rare, often its value goes up so much that, rather than economic extinction at all, the price is so high as in the case of bluefin tuna that over exploitation is the most likely outcome. The people working on this call this the anthropogenic Allee affect.
This aspect of the work where rarity increases value, where it gets interesting, is in this conspicuous angle where it links to conspicuous consumption, not just in terms of wildlife collection and trade—stag beetles, obviously all these large mammal furs—but also in the issue of let’s say, shark fin soup that you serve at your wedding. That’s a very common tradition in Chinese culture, and the act of serving shark fin soup is to show your generosity. Sharks were, in the case back in the previous eras, very dangerous to catch and therefore very rare. It was meant to display this generosity to your guests, conspicuous display.
The thing about shark fin soup: they come from sharks, not surprisingly, and they come from sharks from all over the world. Trying to focus the conservation efforts on the supply side is quite difficult. A lot of sharks come from the tropics as well where we know governance structures are not as much in place. In the case of conspicuous consumption with wildlife or rare species in general, we sometimes need to figure out whether to focus on the supply side or on the demand side of the equation, as opposed to on the demand as I was mentioning as mostly for shark fin soup at weddings. Sharks are also caught in bycatch for the seafood we eat though, too.
In some rare cases, this was a store in Hong Kong that I was in. These are sawfish, which are a form of shark. Again, their bony appendage being used as a conspicuous display of wealth. In the cases with these species, not only can we look at demand, but we can look at how we can use reputation to change people’s norms and values. We also know that rarity increases conservation value, and that’s exactly what a friend of mine did in Vancouver. She was in her early 20s, just got concerned about the issue of shark fin soup and is of Chinese birth. She launched a wedding competition, with no resources at all, just out of her parent’s basement essentially, between wedding couples that they could, on Facebook, submit a plan and proposal and video about not serving shark fin soup at their wedding, why they were doing that, and then the community would vote on which couple they liked the most. That couple would get a free honeymoon to swim with sharks, and her campaign which was, again, very low resource, just a lot of her tenacity, latched onto this idea of reputational benefits from not serving the wild species.
What’s great about it is some people said, "Oh, well, there could be a black market then. You might move it underground," but it’s conspicuous consumption. The whole reason to have shark fin is to show your wealth, so the idea of this becoming some sort of black market idea is very unlikely. As a result, this tactic which she started in 2010 has spread to places like Hong Kong where the demand’s even greater, and the potential for reputation and shame and honor and using that conspicuous element of the wildlife trade and shark fin and species like that plays a real potential in the future for saving them.

Thank you.