Director of Research, Cincinnati Wildlife Research Federation, Cincinnati, Ohio
As a prelude to this discussion of the ex situ technology that is or could be available to maintain biological diversity in conservation programs, we must first explore why we should be interested in this technology at all. The greatest threat to the preservation of genetic diversity of wild animals comes from the destruction and degradation of their habitats (Croner, 1984). Some experts are estimating that if today’s pace of habitat destruction continues, 1 million species of plants and animals may become extinct by the end of this century (AAZPA, 1983). Continued destruction of tropical rain forests, the most species-rich land environment on Earth, may result in mass extinctions that would permanently impoverish the planet (see Part 3 of this book: Diversity at Risk: Tropical Forests).
Other threats to species come from the destruction of animals and plants for food and trade. The Global 2000 Report to the President of the United States (Barney, 1982) states that the extinctions projected for the coming decades will be largely generated by humans and on a scale that renders the gradual process of natural extinction trivial by comparison. Extinction is a catastrophe, not only aesthetically or because of the effect it has on the ecological balance, but also because it deprives mankind of part of Nature’s potential. Each species forms a genetic reservoir (genome) that may be of value in agriculture, medicine, or industry (Daniel, 1981). Forty percent of our present-day medicines are derived from wild plants and animals (Wolkomir, 1983; see also Farnsworth, Chapter 9 of this volume). It is impossible to know what other additional resources lay waiting to be tapped.
Animal and plant germplasm should not be preserved merely for altruistic reasons