Discover more from Notes from the Field
This week there were reports that the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, a bird thought extinct1, might still be out there. It was last officially seen in Louisiana in the 1940s. There have been alleged sightings since, but they are disputed. Some scientists believe they now have proof the bird is out there, but the footage is grainy.
The process of declaring a creature extinct has ramifications: for one, it is removed from any legal protections as an endangered species. But keeping it on the protected list also comes with a cost.
“Whether or not limited federal conservation funds should be spent on chasing this ghost, instead of saving other genuinely endangered species and habitats, is a vital issue,” said Richard O. Prum, a professor of ornithology at Yale.
Nonetheless, the idea of a creature surviving, against the odds, has a natural appeal.
The Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, is another notable (probable) extinction. Discussion continues over whether it still survives somewhere out there in the Tasmanian wilderness (a prospect surely less and less plausible in these days of satellite photography and drones), or even that it survived a few decades longer than the last official sighting (more possible).
Tigers were hunted for sport, for fur, and for the idea that they preyed on livestock. Their numbers dropped before the idea of conservation really caught on, and they limped into the twentieth century with the last survivors dying in zoos.
There has been talk for years of attempts to bring them back, via DNA. It would not be easy. There are no close relative animals who could serve as mothers to such a fetus, or provide additional genetic input. As a marsupial they were not, despite appearance, a canine.
But the thylacine was lost recently - recently enough for some of the last known individuals to have been photographed and filmed. That tantalising closeness is surely part of the allure that they might still be out there.
Various animals have been eradicated from different parts of the world, if not made extinct completely, since classical times. The Roman thirst for exotic beasts in the colosseum removed populations from Europe and North Africa. Medieval and Renaissance bestiaries and hunting chased out more. The Atlas Bear (Africa’s only ursid), was gone by the early modern period.
The first famous extinction though is probably the Dodo. A flightless bird that was apparently also good eating. It was eradicated in the seventeenth century. The passenger pigeon was also a victim of being edible, and easy to hunt - gone from the wild by the turn of the twentieth century.
In the last few decades, the environmental movement has made us much more aware of endangered species, and campaigns to keep alive various animals with shrinking populations.
One notable success story has been the panda. Probably less due to its role as the WWF mascot, than the Chinese government’s decision to protect it as a national symbol. Their efforts at conservation, breeding (and using pandas as a form of soft diplomacy) have brought a resurgence in panda populations. The black and white idiots will live on. (Honestly, have you seen one in the zoo? Those roly poly dolts are so dumb they eat bamboo despite having a carnivore’s digestive tract, and can barely figure out how to reproduce. The real surprise isn’t that they were endangered, it’s that they didn’t die out a thousand years ago).
But saving other struggling species is an uphill battle. Diminished habitats, distorted ecosystems (where other species from the food chain are missing), and the desirability of some animals for trophy hunting or traditional medicine continue to threaten. Pity the poor Pangolin, an odd creature whose scales are supposed to contain some healing properties.
A terrible thing is that among trophy hunters (or traditional medicine devotees), knowledge that an animal is on the brink does not slow demand. It hastens it. People rush to get some before it’s gone. The unintended consequence of “endangered animal” awareness campaigns can be to make the pressure worse.
For animals believed lost, the idea they have survived is romantic and hopeful. Like beliefs in Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, they suggest that there are still mysteries out there, that we have no discovered it all. It is hardly surprising that people believe the more passionately in cryptids as we’ve passed the time of “exploration”, that it seems the world is fully known to us. We want there to be an unknown.
For real animals, recently vanished, we want there to be an unknown where they hide. Where our hope can hide too, from the fact of their destruction.
I am sure that when I was a child we heard of animals becoming extinct. Now the phrase used is often “go extinct”. To me this sounds odd: “go extinct” makes the verb seem active on the part of the animal. Like they would “go extinct” in the way they might “go into the woods” or “go to the movies.”