Deextinction? Yeah naah!
Updated: May 18
Last year I took my friends Yaltji, Loretta and Yukultji, who are Indigenous Rangers from Kiwirrkurra, to see the Thylacine at the Australian Museum. It made us all sad. We discussed deextinction, the process of bringing back extinct species which at first glance may seem exciting. But this would have significant opportunity costs, risks, consequences and ethical implications. And we all agreed there are important Aboriginal cultural contexts to consider.
The largest carnivorous marsupial of modern times, the Thylacene once roamed across Australia with its distinctive stripes giving the appearance of a tiger. The dingo's arrival in Australia less than 10,000 years ago pushed it down to Tasmania, where it held on until finally being hunted to extinction in 1936.
Bringing back the Thylacine through deextinction technology is now a real proposal. But this raises many concerns. Firstly, there is the animal welfare question about the viability of deextinct animals. Even if a Thylacine were successfully cloned, it would come back to a vastly different world to that in which it previously lived. It would have no knowledge of how to hunt or survive in the wild. And no family to teach it. It would require constant human intervention to ensure its survival.
There are also risks relating to the impact deextinct animals could have on remaining ecosystems. Especially given that these are already disrupted through habitat degradation, climate change and invasive species, etc. If Thylacines were reintroduced to Tasmania or elsewhere, for example, they could disrupt an ecology which is already in major disequilibrium. Despite their original positive trophic role as an apex predator, Thylacine reintroductions would likely have negative impacts on remaining native flora and fauna.
Another important factor to consider is the cultural significance of the Thylacine. The Thylacine is of course very important to the Aboriginal people of Tasmania. But it is important to Aboriginal nations across Australia. The Yorta Yorta people of Victoria call the Thlyacine “Ngarrbakarrak". To them, the Thylacine represented strength and resilience, and remains an important part of their cultural heritage. There are paintings of Thylacines on rocks on D'harawal Country where I am from. And I've seen them on cave walls in Kakadu too.
Bringing back the Thylacine through deextinction technology could potentially undermine the cultural significance of the Thylacine to First Australians. It could be interpreted as a disrespectful appropriation of First Nations' cultures and histories, and it could also perpetuate the idea that Indigenous Australians are not custodians of their own cultural and natural heritage.
As an economist, I can't help considering things from an opportunity cost perspective. In this context, a focus on deextinction would divert resources and attention away from more urgent and effective conservation efforts - for example, habitat restoration and tackling invasive species. Rather than focusing millions of dollars on Jurasic Park approaches to bring back extinct species, money and scientific effort would be much better directed towards protecting and preserving Australia's remaining species and habitat. I'm sure, like me, Yaltji, Loretta and Nolia, most First Australians if consulted would say, rather than brining the Thylacine back, more money should be put into Indigenous Ranger and other other caring-for-country programs.
To conclude, deextinction raises multiple ethical and policy dilemmas. While the idea of bringing back an extinct species like the Thylacine may seem exciting, it is important to consider the consequences and impacts on both the animal and our remaining fragile ecosystems. Importantly, Australia must also consider the cultural significance of extinct species to our First Nations, and empower and resource Aboriginal people to protect and care for country. Rather than focusing on deextinction, Australia needs urgently to prioritise the protection, conservation and restoration of our remaining species and habitats. This requires collaborative effort. And listening to Aboriginal peoples. Establishing the Voice to Parliament will hopefully help.