As November closed out, likely very few acknowledged the last day of the month as Remembrance Day for Lost Species. More attention was given the last week of the month to the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, the fall from grace of celebrity news host Matt Lauer, criticism of the White House Christmas décor and the failure of San Francisco’s justice system.
Perhaps that’s not surprising. We are enamored of us. We are focused on our exploits. We are Man-centric. For too many, other living creatures are accoutrements, trophies, food or nuisances, if they’re given any due at all.
Which is why there’s a need for a Remembrance Day for Lost Species. Through Man’s avarice, hubris and ignorance, too many species have been lost, and still more are on the path to extinction. If we understand the past, it’s said, we’ll better understand the present, and presumably a better way forward. A day carved out to acknowledge this animal genocide is an opportunity to look at our past failures with other species, remember what we’ve lost and commit to protecting what remains.
Environmental scientist Leon Kolankiewicz reminded me recently of the heart-breaking story of the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis). Kolankiewicz writes, “The demise of the ivory-billed woodpecker is the story of man’s mindless assault on his fellow creatures.”
Inhabiting the Southeastern United States, IBWO was the largest woodpecker in America. By the late 19th century, logging and hunting had devastated the species, which was believed to be extinct by the 1920s. In Florida, what was thought to be perhaps the last nesting pair was shot by a pair of local taxidermists in 1924.
In the following decade, Cornell University ornithologist James Tanner spent two years studying ivory-bills in Louisiana, and in 1939 estimated perhaps two dozen of these woodpeckers remained in the U.S. His only actual sightings were in what was the largest piece of primeval forest left in the South, called the Singer Tract. Tanner concluded preserving this space was the best hope for survival of the species.
The land was owned by the Singer Manufacturing Company, of sewing machine fame, but another company held logging rights to the land and increased its clear-cutting once the National Audubon Society began a campaign to save the Singer Tract. The unsuccessful campaign ended with Richard Pough, who would later became The Nature Conservancy’s first president, finding one female ivory-bill in a small stand of uncut timber, surrounded by destruction.
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, artist Don R. Eckelberry followed Pough in search of the bird, found her, and watched and drew her, thus recording “the last universally accepted sighting of one of these birds in the United States.”
But hope springs eternal after Man treads too heavily. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology conducted extensive surveys in Arkansas, Louisiana and Florida from 2006 to 2009, which offered enough bread crumbs to lead some to believe their might be a real trail to the IBWO. Other anecdotal stories have furthered the idea that IBWO might still exist.
Time will tell if it’s only wishful thinking.
But the definitive death knell has rung for so many other species, including the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). Before Europeans descended on what became the United States, passenger pigeons were ubiquitous. It has been estimated there were 3 to 5 billion of them, representing 25 to 40 percent of the U.S. bird population.
In the documentary, “From Billions to None – The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction,” the filmmaker helps us imagine what North American skies were like a mere 200 years ago, with a graphic representation of a blackened sky filled with passenger pigeons – pigeons as far as the eye could see, a pigeon umbrella a mile wide and 200 miles long. Yet in only a few decades, Man had wiped out the passenger pigeon.
According to Smithsonian, “One of the last large nestings of passenger pigeons occurred at Petoskey, Michigan, in 1878. Here 50,000 birds per day were killed and this rate continued for nearly five months. When the adult birds that survived this massacre attempted second nestings at new sites, they were soon located by the professional hunters and killed before they had a chance to raise any young.” The last known passenger pigeon, Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914, the final word on tragedy and ugliness of massive proportion.
How ignorant can we be? It seems Homo sapiens repeatedly shows no limits in that regard.
The website for Remembrance Day for Lost Species includes the story of the extinction on Mauritius and Réunion of the rougette (Pteropus subniger), which was also known as the Mauritian flying fox and is described as a bat which was about two feet from wingtip to wingtip and sported a band of reddish fur around its neck.
Matt Stanfield writes on the site that “… nearly two centuries of plantation agriculture-driven hunting and habitat destruction would drive P. subniger extinct. The final record on Réunion came in 1862, with the animal last reported on Mauritius two years later. Live rougettes were not heard of again.”
One more unique form of life, this one evolved over maybe 50 million years, wiped out so carelessly, so quickly.
In “Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals,” Daniel Hudon gives voice to hundreds of lost species from North, Central and South America, Hawaii, the Pacific Islands, and other areas throughout the world. Hudson writes, “Since the year 1500, no fewer than 900 species have become extinct.” He writes of those gone forever: the Carolina Parakeet, Eskimo Curlew, Harelip Sucker, Heath Hen, Guam Flying Fox, Mamo, Red-bellied Gracile Mouse Opossum, Lesser Bilby, Japanese Sea Lion, Ethiopian Water Mouse, Round Island Burrowing Boa, Thylacine and a host of other lost life.
Poor, pathetic stewards of Earth we have been too often. We can do better … much better.
The opportunities to redeem ourselves are many. Facing the Sixth Extinction, the greatest loss of biodiversity since the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, there’s no end to the work to preserve and protect what biodiversity we still have, including those who could become extinct in the near term. Just a partial list of small and large animals that need our help:
Peruvian black spider monkey
Atlantic bluefin tuna
Lange’s metalmark butterfly
San Joaquin fox
Mississippi gopher frog
Some of these animal populations are in the low three-digit numbers, and some in just two-digit numbers. Against those small numbers are 7.5 billion – and increasing – of us. Looking for a positive in what looks like a losing numbers game for nonhuman life, that’s a lot of human energy that we could direct to conservation.
By developing many more advocates (individuals, NGOs, nonprofits, companies and governments) for the preservation and protection of biodiversity who will share both time and dollars to support existing and new sound, science-based programs for species conservation, habitat preservation and habitat restoration we can stabilize and then increase the numbers for endangered species. It’s the lesson to take away from Remembrance Day for Lost Species and to put into action.