Hidden away at Buenos Aires Zoo, Norberto Luis Jácome and a team of three Argentine scientists run the Animal Reproduction and Conservation Assistance Project, popularly known by its acronym ARCA, Spanish for ark.
ARCA is not a boat crowded with animals, but a two-room laboratory where five giant thermos bottles — cooled with liquid nitrogen to minus 196°C — conserve the genetic material necessary to keep several species from disappearing completely.
Jácome’s quest is an urgent one. Scientists report the earth loses a species every three minutes. Almost an eighth of the world’s remaining species of birds, nearly a fifth of the mammals, five per cent of the fish, and eight per cent of terrestrial plants are seriously threatened with extinction, according to William Conway, senior conservationist of the Wildlife Conservation Society. If things do not change, by the year 2025, the earth could lose up to a fifth of all species known to exist today.
Jácome has invaluable experience saving a species that many thought was doomed. In 1996, he was selected as an Associate Laureate in the Rolex Awards for Enterprise for his valiant efforts to save the Andean condor.
As ARCA’s director, Jácome and his colleagues have gathered spermatozoa, ova, and tissue samples from 23 threatened species, and submerged them — after mixing them with a chemical soup that protects the fragile cells from freezer burn — into the cold thermos bottles. Scientists are not sure how long cells can live in the cold, but Jácome collected some specimens a decade ago, and reports that the material remains viable today.
Though Jácome is bringing science to the rescue of threatened species, he warns that there is no quick technological fix for the planet’s problems. Just putting endangered species into a scientific lifeboat is not the solution.
"Today’s flood is much worse than what Noah faced," he says. "This modern technology will permit us, if the flood passes, to possess the genetic resources so that the animals can come out of ARCA. Yet if the flood doesn’t stop, no one will come out alive."
It will not make any sense to save wild animals whose natural environment has been completely destroyed, Jácome argues. Wild lands must be saved along with wildlife. "ARCA is a response to the flood, but not a definitive solution. A cultural change is absolutely necessary if we’re going to guarantee the continuity of life on this beautiful planet."
ARCA’s frozen resources have two purposes. The first is to form a genetic bank. Using "cryopreservation", Jácome and his team store the reproductive material of wild species on the brink of extinction. If necessary, they can successfully extract reproductive material from animals several hours after they have died, allowing the dead to give life to new members of the species.
The second task is to put the material to work keeping a species alive by strengthening its genetic diversity.
"One of the principal environmental problems we confront today is the conversion of extensive natural habitats into a mosaic of patches, where the introduction of roads, cities, farms, and mines limits the ability of species to move around. They remain separated on little isolated islands of habitat, and suffer from genetic impoverishment as a result," says Jácome.
Without crossbreeding among different populations of the same species, animals lose their genetic variety, and become more vulnerable to environmental change. Biodiverse populations, on the other hand, tend to yield more resilient animals with better chances to survive a variety of natural and human-made dangers.
ARCA’s mission is the opposite of cloning, which has prompted worldwide controversy in recent months. "We who work in conservation aren’t particularly interested in cloning, because the result is more of the same," Jácome says. "We’re interested in genetic diversity, not equal copies of an individual animal. That diversity will help animal populations survive future changes in their environments."
To encourage biodiversity in threatened species, biologists have long had to transport animals long distances, a risky and costly endeavour that often fails to produce new offspring. Yet by combining cryopreservation with reproductive techniques perfected by commercial animal breeders, scientists today can send frozen ova or sperm long distances at lower cost and with much less risk. Animals on different sides of the planet, or trapped in different "patches" of what were once extensive wildlife habitats, can renew their genetic diversity with scientific help, producing young that are stronger and hardier than if they were left on their own.
An example of the species in ARCA’s deep freeze is the pampas deer, an animal that once ranged extensively throughout Argentina and neighbouring countries. Yet after decades of encroaching urbanization and the expansion of cattle ranching, only about 1,000 remain, divided into four isolated groups. ARCA, the only institution to store the deer’s genetic material, has worked with a coalition of public and private groups to help the remaining members of the species bear healthy and genetically diverse offspring.
Other scientists have created cryopreservation centres at universities and zoos in richer countries, many of which are much larger than ARCA. Yet Julián Garde, a professor of agroforestry sciences at the University of Castilla-La Mancha in Spain, says the Argentine centre is unique in that the technology "is applied within a global context of conservation. ARCA utilises these new technologies as tools that assist conservation, never forgetting that conservation of the ecosystems is necessary if these species are going to survive."
Jácome adds that ARCA is unique in the region in its interest in species with no obvious commercial value. It is conservation for conservation’s sake, an argument that becomes more difficult to make, yet even more necessary, in the middle of Argentina’s economic crisis.
Tree of Life
"Human life exists in the middle of nature," Jácome maintains. "We’re part of an immense natural tapestry. We’re a leaf on the giant tree of life. If we cut down the tree, it’s all over for us. If we do away with biodiversity, we’ll be committing suicide, and we won’t have any social problems to worry about any longer."
Jácome and ARCA are helping to revolutionise the role of the world’s zoological parks. The sad image of an animal walking endless circles on the concrete floor of its cage is being replaced by that of an institution dedicated to helping nature recover its health.
"At a time when natural environments were still intact, zoos were mere exhibition centres of animals, a gallery of beasts that in many cases also put human beings on display," Jácome explains. "Today, with the environment and wild species in danger of extinction, zoos are called on to fulfil a new role in conserving the world. Just as with ARCA, zoos can be powerful tools in the struggle in favour of wildlife."
Despite his frustration at humanity’s rapid destruction of its environment, Jácome says he is not without hope. "Although tomorrow we may blow up the world, and there are more than enough nuclear weapons to do so, today I will plant my apple orchard."
Yet the clock is ticking for thousands of species. "We’ve gone crazy, we’re killing ourselves. We’re the ones responsible for the flood," he says. "Time is not something we have in excess. But rather than seeing our work as a race against time, I’d prefer to see it as a gesture of dignity, a symbol that there is still hope, still time to find solutions, and that it’s worth our time and energy to work for change, that it’s not too late."
Published in 2002