In recent years a series of artistic interventions have sought to effect creative resurrections of extinct and endangered species. Chief among those has been the Ghosts of Gone Birds project (2011-13) which toured Britain as a “sad exhibition of ghost stories”, using spectral metaphors in its ruminations on disappearance and reappearance. With Ghosts of Gone Birds as its starting point, this paper will tease out some of the theoretical and empirical implications of taking the idea of ‘ghost species’ seriously. Thinking about existence in an age that has witnessed mass extinction (disappearance), synthetic biology (reappearance), and the haunting of future generations (Anthropocene), we are led towards a new vocabulary of ghosts in order to make sense of what it means for a species to be ‘on the cusp’. In classifying species either according to whether they are present and accessible, or extinct and lost to the human gaze, do we miss out on the spectral gatherings that hover on the fringes of visibility? What of transparent, cryptic, hidden, or resurrected species? In this paper we therefore introduce the idea that the spectre of absence is haunting conservation policies. What if the ‘almost-gone’ or ‘barely-there’ have a power that eludes the schematic representations of decline and disappearance publicised by the IUCN Red List? ‘Ghost species’ is an attractive label to channel pathos about the extinct, but it must also inspire strategies that use and value indeterminacy in a mongrel world.
Shane McCorristine is an interdisciplinary geographer and historian with interests in polar exploration and the environmental humanities, focusing on the themes of embodiment and the spectral. He has published on the history of ghosts, Arctic exploration, and post-mortem punishment. He is currently a Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Leicester and a College Lecturer in Geography at Downing College, University of Cambridge.
Bill Adams is the Moran Professor of Conservation and Head of the Geography Department at the University of Cambridge. He is interested in sustainability, resource development, ecological restoration, and the evolution of conservation ideas. Bill has published widely on these topics including "Green Development" (1990, 2001, 2009) and "Against Extinction: The Story of Conservation" (2004).