Friday, 4 June 2004

Why are dead species worth more than the living?

I recently attended a conference in Cambridge on the history of natural history, and one particularly interesting paper chronicled the history of the Thylacine, an extinct marsupial wolf from Tasmania. Depressingly, the moment the species was declared officially extinct – 50 years after the last authentic sighting of a living specimen, the value of its dried skins and pickled specimens leapt up. Now a skin can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. And last night I was looking at a sale catalogue for a natural history auction held in California recently and some of the prices realise were truly astounding. A cave bear skeleton fetched $11,000, a pliosaur skeleton, $58,000, an elephant bird egg $41,000, and so it went on, with tens of thousands of dollars being paid for fossils and minerals.

Why is it that so many people are prepared to pay such vast sums of money, when an equal amount would save thousands of living species. Fossils are interesting, just as works of art are important markers in the history of humankind, but it is inconceivable that anyone should value them more highly than living, unique species. Yet while wealthy collectors pay astronomical prices for long dead species, species are disappearing from the planet for ever. Does anyone know how I can contact these collectors, and persuade them to leave a better bequest to the planet than a heap of rocks or dried skins?

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