(Longread - an in-depth look at 16 of the endangered species lost throughout history.)
Throughout history, many species of animal have tragically been left behind. From the famous case of the dodo to the lesser-known loss of the moa, the sheer amount of animal life which has gone extinct is shocking: in fact, more than 99% of all species to ever exist on earth, have now been lost (according to scientific estimations.) While a certain level of elimination can be attributed to natural causes (such as the Ice Age), much of the responsibility falls to us humans. The consequences of our actions have led to many of the below creatures dying out and, without a conscious effort to make a real change, further beloved species could soon vanish from the face of the earth, soon to be little more than remnants of folklore passed on through time.
Thought to have been the first extinct snake to have been discovered in Australia, the Wonambi was a very large prehistoric snake. Measuring at around 9 metres long (with a diameter of around 30cm), the Wonambi was a non-venomous snake, and instead was seemingly an ambush predator which would kill its prey by constriction.
The Wonambi lived during the Pleistocene Ice Age, surviving in natural sun-traps beside local waterholes and feasting on marsupials such as kangaroo and wallaby, in addition to other such prey which would come to the water to drink. Coincidentally, the Late Pleistocene era saw the arrival of the first aboriginal people, and the children of these families were forbidden from playing near the water due to the risk of snake attack.
The end of the Ice Age and, of course, the arrival of the aborigines would soon result in the wonambi’s demise. An inability to adapt to climate change is thought to have played a part in the depletion of the animal, though many experts claim that the wonambi became extinct as a direct result of hunting and firestick farming.
Otherwise known as the Procoptodon, this mouthful of a marsupial is yet another creature which met both life and death in the plains of Australia. Standing at up to 10 feet tall and weighing in at a hefty 500 pounds, the Giant Short-Faced was quite different to the kangaroos we’re familiar with today, with distinguishing characteristics such as a blunt snout and long front claws. It also had slightly forward-facing eyes (like those on a primate), as well as particularly large jaws. Additionally, its forelimbs were unusually long and mobile, complete with ‘grappling hook’-esque claws, and the animal seemingly had just one long ‘toe’ on each of its hind limbs.
Despite being of quite some size (and surely intimidating to look at!), the short-faced kangaroo would have posed minimal threat to those around it. Remains tell us that this was a herbivorous species, using those massive gnashers only to cut through and mash up tough leaves or stems.
Sadly, it seems as if the arrival of aborigines in Australia would soon lead to the demise of the animal, as was the case with the wonambi. The presumed disappearance of this species roughly coincides with the aforementioned time period, and it is entirely possible that an animal that posed so little threat to those around it, could easily be hunted for its meat. However, there is another theory that the short-faced kangaroo’s decline had more to do with the disappearance of its favourite plants, as not only would plant life have struggled to survive as temperatures increased, but the aborigines and kangaroos could have existed on entirely different parts of Australia’s vast plains.
Now, while it is commonly believed that the species died out tens of thousands of years ago, there may be evidence that the short-faced kangaroo actually survived up until 18,000 years ago. That said, this evidence is has not been made widely available, so the facts (as far as the general public are concerned) are still somewhat speculative.
Jumping forward in time somewhat, it is evident where human behaviours eventually became the biggest problem, rather than suspect theories in the demise of nature. The 1700’s capture a time in which opulence and poverty were in stark contrast, with the poorest of the poor surviving with minimal food, tattered clothing, and substandard living arrangements; themes which were quite contrary to the wealthy.
Instead of struggling in their search for food, the upper-echelon of Georgian society would instead focus their attention on hunting, both for fashion and for sport. Shooting was a popular pastime of the era, as was hunting with hounds, and both methods saw animals slain for entertainment (as well as for their meat and their hides.) However, the death of animals such as foxes and pheasants were simply not enough to satiate the thirst of the rich and, sadly, an obsession with affluence would soon lead to the extinction of an already threatened bird.
The Great Auk was a species of flightless alcid, already at risk by the mid 1500’s, due to predation by polar bears and massive exploitation by humans, who sought their down for use in the manufacture of pillows. Official protection measures were put into place in 1553, but it was not until 1794 where the killing of the bird for its feathers became punishable by flogging. Nevertheless, people would still violate the law, attracted to the rarity of the Auk, and hunting of the bird for fishing bait was still permitted.
A 1794 account by Aaron Thomas (of HMS Boston) states brutally how the bird was slaughtered, detailing the cruel way in which sailors and hunters would pluck at their feathers, in addition to eating them too:
‘If you come for their Feathers you do not give yourself the trouble of killing them, but lay hold of one and pluck the best of the Feathers. You then turn the poor Penguin adrift, with his skin half naked and torn off, to perish at his leasure. This is not a very humane method but it is the common practize. While you abide on this island you are in the constant practize of horrid cruelties for you not only skin them Alive, but you burn them Alive also to cook their Bodies with. You take a kettle with you into which you put a Penguin or two, you kindle a fire under it, and this fire is absolutely made of the unfortunate Penguins themselves. Their bodys being oily soon produce a Flame; there is no wood on the island.’
Due to the Auk’s increased rarity, the animal and its eggs would soon become collectible items, highly prized by the rich Europeans of the time. By 1840, the last Great Auk seen in Britain was killed, after being captured and tied up for three days before being beaten to death with a stick – the bird’s captures claimed that they believed it was a witch.
By 1844, the very last Auks met a heartwrenching and gruesome end: on the 3rd of June, Jon Brandsson and Sigurour Isleifsson were sent to Iceland with a mission to retrieve the skins of the bird, as per the request of a wealthy merchant. The last pair of Auks were found incubating an egg, with the adults being strangled by the men, and the final link to the species (the egg) being smashed with a boot. When interviewed by Great Auk specialist John Wooley, Sigurour described the final moments of the bird’s lives:
‘The rocks were covered with blackbirds, and there were the Geirfugles...They walked slowly. Jón Brandsson crept up with his arms open. The bird that Jón got went into a corner but mine was going to the edge of the cliff. It walked like a man...but moved its feet quickly. I caught it close to the edge – a precipice many fathoms deep. Its wings lay close to the sides - not hanging out. I took him by the neck and he flapped his wings. He made no cry. I strangled him.’
Excerpts such as the above detail a harrowing phase of time for nature and, sadly, pinpoint the beginnings of humanity’s disregard for the species whom exist alongside us. As we progress into more modern times, a lack of care becomes evident, as even more animals began to disappear from the earth.
Not long after the upsetting demise of the Great Auk, another species would soon succumb to the hands of time – or rather, the hands of man himself.
You may recognise the quagga from history books, though any photographs you’re likely to have seen will of all been of the exact same specimen: a captive mare, who lived out her final days at London Zoo. Of course, the quagga was not a native species of the United Kingdom (or even Europe, for that matter); conversely, the species was prominent for a time in South Africa.
Just shy of 5ft at the shoulder and with a weight of around 500 pounds, the quagga could perhaps be described as a slightly smaller cousin of today’s zebra: instead of having stripes across its whole body, the quagga was striped only on its front (head to mid-torso), with its markings typically fading out towards the animal’s middle. Little is known about the quagga’s behaviour, but it is believed that the animal was of a lively temperament, spending its time gathered in herds of 30-50 individuals.
The arrival of Dutch settlers in South Africa lead to the quagga being hunted for its meat and skin (only 23 examples of which exist today); additionally, Afrikaners (the decedents of settlers) would continue to kill the animal for trade. On top of this, ranchers would shoot the grazing quagga, believing that the animal posed a problem for their own livestock. As a result, the quagga had vanished from much of its range by the 1850’s, with the last wild individual expiring in 1878.
As with the Great Auk, the quagga has quickly become a prized possession in the eyes of the wealthy and, as such, a number of quaggas were captured and shipped out for display in Europe’s zoos. A man known as Lord Morton tried to save the species, obtaining only a single male, breeding the animal in desperation with a female horse – of course, this inter-species breeding would never result in a true rebirth of the quagga.
Over the next few years, Europe’s final specimens would soon pass away: London’s quagga died in 1872; Berlin’s in 1875; and the very last captive individual (a female) died in Amsterdam on the 12th of August 1883. Troublingly, the passing of the final quagga was not understood to be as such, with the zoo requesting another specimen, as if they could be so simply retrieved. It was not until the 1900’s that the species’ demise had fully been acknowledged, and since the 1980’s a controversial breeding project has been in place in an attempt to bring the animal back from extinction, though the quagga’s DNA cannot be truly replicated.
The turn of the 19th century marked the beginning of the end for a massive number of species, such as various breed of rodents, birds, and mammals. In addition to hunting and encroachment activities, the spread of disease played a key part in the eradication of animals across the globe, with certain illnesses spreading as far as Japan.
Otherwise known as the Honshu Wolf, the Japanese Wolf was a staple of Asian folklore for centuries: believed to be the protectors of travellers, its native name (ōkami) loosely translates to ‘great spirit.’ The animal was endemic to numerous Japanese Islands such as Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu since 713 (the first instance of the wolf appearing on record) but, by 1701, members of social hierarchy had begun to view the animal as problematic, introducing bounties for its death. By 1742, professional wolf hunters were hired to shoot at and poison the animal, with wolf-hunts becoming common practice amongst farmers and the affluent alike.
In 1736, the rabies crisis had begun to seep into Japan, affecting dogs and indicating the illness had spread from China or Korea. Shortly after the infection of dogs, the wolves would too become sick with the strain, meaning that the slaying of the species was mandatory as per a national policy under the Meiji Restoration. Over the next generation, the wolves were systematically wiped out, with the final specimens being recorded in the Nara Prefecture in 1905.
The thylacine, otherwise known as the Tasmanian Tiger, was the largest known carnivorous marsupial of modern times – that’s right, contrary to its popular nickname, the Tasmanian Tiger was not a big cat!
An unusual species, the thylacine displayed behaviours and a genetic make-up similar to a range of otherwise dissimilar animals: its general appearance was reminiscent of a dog, though its stiff tail and abdominal pouch were akin to today’s kangaroos; its dark stripes represent those of a tiger, yet its shy and nocturnal nature would be unfamiliar to the aforementioned big cat.
Native to Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea, the so-called Tasmanian Tiger was the final link to the Thylacinidae family, present since the late Oligocene (around 33 million years ago.) Excessive hunting and a selfish thirst for its coat put the ‘tiger’ at risk, though disease and a loss of habitat are also thought to have played a part in the animal’s demise.
While the thylacine was likely an at-risk species in Australia since around 2000 years ago (possibly earlier in New Guinea), absolute extinction is attributed to hunts carried out by indigenous humans and their companion dingoes. The animal had managed to survive in Tasmania; however, the 1930’s would mark the end of the thylacine’s existence altogether. European settlers had begun to fear the ‘tiger’, displeased with supposed attacks on sheep and other livestock; thus, a bounty was set allowing means to control their numbers (the Tasmanian government even offered a payment equivalent to £100 today, for the slaying of adult thylacines.)
By the 1920’s, the animal was extremely close to extinction, with sightings becoming increasingly rare in the wild and, by 1933, the last captive thylacine had died. Unofficially named ‘Benjamin’, the ‘tiger’ spent the final three years of his life in Hobart Zoo; his death seemingly the result of severe neglect.
The mid 1900’s takes us back to Australia, and to the sad passing of yet another marsupial species: the Crescent Nail-Tail Wallaby.
Residing in the woodlands of west and central Australia, the Crescent Nail-Tail was the smallest wallaby species ever known, standing at only a diminutive 15 inches tall. With its petite frame and clumsy manner, the Nail-Tail was considered to be easy pickings, and would find itself being chased into probable extinction by red foxes. While the demise of the Nail-Tail seems, on the surface, to pertain to the circle of life, it must be remembered that the wallaby’s main predator (the red fox) was introduced to Australia by recreational hungers, and that a number of other native species would also soon be wiped out.
While there are still monk seals to be found in our planet’s waters, the Caribbean monk seal has likely been extinct for almost 70 years, although the official status of the animal was only made clear in 2008.
Otherwise known as the West Indian Seal or Sea Wolf, this ocean-dwelling creature was typically unaggressive and had a curious, unassuming nature, much like its surviving cousins (such as the Hawaiian monk seal and the Mediterranean monk seal.) Its large, heavy body contributed to its sluggish motion on land, and it is thought that a lack of activity made the animal an easy target for hunters.
The first recorded mention of the Caribbean monk seal appears courtesy of Christopher Columbus: during his second voyage (August 1494), the party of men departed their ship and killed eight seals found resting on the beach of Alta Velo. Numerous other instances were acknowledged through time; sometimes with seamen capturing and eating the seals, whereas other times sugar plantation owners would slaughter the seals for their oil, using it to lubricate their machinery.
Sightings of the seals had become increasingly rare by the 1900’s, and an insatiable demand for seal products (such as meat, oil and blubber) had lead hunters to drive its existence into oblivion. Like in the instance of the quagga, humanity did little to prevent the death of the species and, by the time the seal was placed on the endangered species list (1967), it was likely already extinct. The last confirmed sighting of the Caribbean Monk Seal was in 1952.
As with many species lost throughout time, there have been numerous unconfirmed sightings on the monk seal throughout history: apparent ‘sightings’ are fairly frequent in Haiti and Jamaica, but an exhaustive search for the animal led only to a 2008 declaration of its extinction.
Disturbingly, the turn of the 21st Century has neglected to halt the destruction of wildlife, and it is only within the past few years that we have witnessed the untimely demise of a long-suffering species.
The West African Black Rhinoceros was a subspecies of black rhino, and was once widespread in the savanna of sub-Saharan Africa (notably, Cameroon.) Despite its considerable size and physical strength, the West African Black Rhinoceros was a relatively docile species, feeling primarily on leafy plants and shoots. The animal also had poor eyesight, relying on local birds to help them detect incoming threat – coupled with the fact that the rhino was sought for its two horns, the animal’s inability to effectively defend itself could inadvertently have played a part in its extinction.
It is a well-known fact that various species of animals fall victim to poachers, with individuals in countries such as China believing that ivory can be used to cure ailments. It is also widely acknowledged that no such evidence of medicinal value exists; rather, the abhorrence of the ivory trade is publicised on a global scale. So why is it that poachers, the wealthy, and the so-called ‘medical experts’ in far-off lands insist on becoming Public Enemy Number 1?
The unenviable title of Most Hated Person In The World, apparently, becomes easier to bear when large sums of money are involved. The ivory trade is incredibly lucrative (and, despicably, permitted in many countries – even the United Kingdom are guilty of allowing the trade to continue) and as a result of this, animals bearing ivory are fiercely targeted, suffering horrifically grizzly termination of their lives.
The West African Black Rhinoceros had been prey since the beginning of the 20th Century, though protection efforts were brought into play in the 1930’s, allowing populations to recover somewhat. Sadly, an interest in their preservation declined significantly over the years, and an interest in Chinese medicine/ivory trade boomed (1kg of ivory from the animal could be sold for more than 50,000 USD.) From the early 1900’s til 1995, the West African Black Rhino saw its population drop from 850,000 (the highest population of any rhino species at the time), to just 2,500. By 2006, the rhino had been eradicated completely, with the final sighting reported in Cameroon’s Northern Province.
There is serious concern about the lack of attempt to protect the West African Black Rhino: even the IUCN suffered a backlash due to conservation failures, even taking five years to officially declare the death of the species. However, since the loss of this great creature, further efforts have been made to protect Africa’s other rhinos (including other species of black rhino.) Today, the poaching of ivory it punishable to a higher degree, and there are now rangers and government officials specially trained to deal with instances of this kind.
Hunted throughout the 17th century for its meat, the Pinta Island Tortoise suffered a prolonged yet tragically inevitable demise. The animal was seemingly discovered at the very end of the 1700’s, with an excerpt from the voyage of Captain James Colnett describing the species in some detail; it is likely that buccaneers and whalers in the years afterwards were responsible for the deaths of around 200,000 tortoises collectively.
The final known Pinta Island Tortoise was discovered on the 1st of November 1971; he was lovingly named George. The tortoise was relocated for his safety, as the island on which he had been found was no longer fit for his survival: a severe lack of vegetation was available, meaning that all other specimens had likely died out. For the rest of his life, George (or Lonesome George, as he was sometimes known) lived under the care of Fausto Llerena, a worker at the breeding centre.
Over the years, it was hoped that other Pinta tortoises would be found and paired with George, though sadly a partnership was not to be. As such, attempts were made to breed George with other subspecies of Galapagos. Although eggs were produced, it was with much disappointment that none hatched, rendering the species ‘functionally extinct.’ He was known, at this point, as the rarest creature in the world.
George’s life came to an end on the 24th of June 2012, confirmed at 8am local time when his body was found by Llerena. It is thought that George died of ‘old age,’ and was estimated to be more than 100 years old at the time of his passing. He is remembered as an icon of conservation, and a symbol of protective efforts throughout the world.
With populations of the Bornean Orangutan already being incredibly low, there are fears that this beloved Great Ape could be extinct by 2040. Deforestation, the palm oil trade, the pet trade and hunters seeking bush meat are all major threats to the animal, and it is imperative that major changes are made if we wish to preserve the species.
By 1950, it is thought that Bornean orangutan populations had already fallen by a staggering 60%. Since then, populations have continued to deplete and are expected to have fallen by a further 22% by 2025. There have been impassioned calls to Borneo’s government officials to protect the species, as well as the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan (both species have populations of around 54,500 and 15,000 respectively); that said, the government seldom prosecutes perpetrators.
There are multiple rescue centres working hard to protect the Bornean and Sumatran orangutan, but it is vital they receive efficient funding and support. You can join the fight to protect the orangutan by checking out our project pages.
Once a populous species throughout Southeast Asia, the Sumatran Rhino is now one of the rarest creatures on earth. It is thought that fewer than 100 individuals now exist, with their pitiful numbers being a direct result of illegal poaching, and their decline thought suffer by more than 50% per decade since the 1990’s.
Like the Bornean and Sumatran orangutan, the Sumatran rhino is at severe risk of extinction due to reforestation. In addition to losing their habitat, the rhinos face an added risk of being murdered for their meat and horns. While there is an argument for animals being placed into secure captivity such as zoos (though such places are controversial), it has been noted that Sumatran rhinos struggle to survive outside of their native environments, succumbing to depression or failing to adjust to change.
As well as there being risks for the animals in captivity, breeding activities often prove fruitless: remaining populations suffer from inbreeding depression, and interbreeding of species is somewhat problematic, as well as unadvised. These breeding issues have been made apparent in that there have only been two instances of reproduction of captive females in the last 15 years and, with only 220-275 individuals remaining, it may now be too late to save the Sumatran Rhinoceros.
There was once a time that the white-rumped vulture was thought to be the most populous bird of prey in the world: in the 1980’s, numbers were estimated to be in the several of millions. However, due to the misconception of the animals being ‘pests’, the white-rumped vulture has suffered the fasted decline of any bird species in history, with today’s population standing at only 10,000 or so.
While the death of the species has, in part, been accidental, there have also been many instances in which humans have deliberately caused harm to the birds. The Bandola (Banda) people of the Indian state Andhra Pradesh would hunt the birds for meat; in the Arabian Peninsula, the birds would frequently be shot; and in certain parts of the world, the trapping of vultures would be commonplace. As far as ‘accidental’ death is concerned, the birds would become poisoned whilst eating the carcasses of cows: while farmers can safely administer diclofenac (an NSAID) to their cattle, this anti-inflammatory drug would lead to kidney failure in the birds. Of course, upon consuming carcasses, the vultures would also be ingesting traces of the drug.
Populations of the white-rumped vulture are now critical, with the only viable populations for conservation being found in Cambodia and Burma. That said, these populations are incredibly small, and numbers remain in the low hundreds. It has been suggested that a different NSAID, Meloxicam, could be substituted in the place of diclofenac, as this drug is harmless to the vultures and could aid their recovery. We can only hope that the vulture population sees a turnaround as a result, although with 99% of the birds now deceased, hope is running dry.
Another species engaged in a fight against time is the pangolin. As the most trafficked species on earth, this poor creature faces serious risk and could soon be wiped out if we fail to protect them.
Over 100,000 pangolins are captured every year, as traffickers push the species through the pet trade. The animals are oftentimes frozen in transit from country to country, and thousands die during their miserable journey from country to country. However, not all pangolins are destined to become ‘pets’: the animal is also slaughtered for its scales and meat.
As a result of exploitation, the defenceless pangolin is estimated to become extinct within our lifetime. Much of the blame falls to the unfounded medicinal beliefs held in East Asia, where the scales of the animal are harvested and ground up in the hopes of healing diseases and ailments, such as cancer or asthma. An international ban has been placed on the trading of pangolin, and there have been numerous seizures of the animal/their meat (particularly throughout Asia); however, as with many species mentioned in today’s list, the value of animal products sadly seems to mean more to some people than the lives of the creatures themselves.
Considered to be one of the rarest creatures on earth, the vaquita is on the very precipice of extinction. The species has been listed as critically endangered since 1996, with populations as low as 600 in 1997. The most recent approximation of numbers in 2016 suggests that there are now only 30 vaquitas left.
The vaquita is the smallest member of the infraorder Cetacea, with an average length of 55.4 inches for females and 53.1 inches for males. In ideal conditions, the vaquita has an estimated life span of around 20 years. Their lives are considerably shorter than other cetaceans, and their foraging habits put them at great risk: by feeding near lagoons, the species has fallen victim to bycatching activities, as well as the illegal gillnet method.
While the vaquita has never been hunted directly in its endemic home (the Gulf of California), their populations have plummeted due to the above fishing activities. A complete ban of gillnet use may be the only thing to save the vaquita, but harsh enforcement is necessary if the species is to survive. If the vaquita is to die out completely, the northern Gulf of California will suffer enormous ecological impact and its high species diversity is likely to be harmed (for example, shark population sizes are estimated to diminish due to a loss of vaquita.)
Shockingly, the gillnet ban had come close to being lifted. Originally scheduled to expire at the end of May 2017, conservationists battled to keep the regulation in place, and the cause also received help from high-profile celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio. On June 7th, it was announced that the gillnet ban was to be made permanent, with more stringent methods of regulation also put in place and violations to be met with higher punishment. The ban, alongside proposed breeding initiatives, may be the only way to bring the vaquita back from near-extinction.
Tragically, it is thought that conservation efforts may have come too late for one species of big cat: the Amur Leopard.
After being rendered extinct in China and the Korean Peninsula, the Amur leopard can now only be found in the Amur river basin of Eastern Russia. Wild numbers are estimated to be around 60, though it is entirely possible that populations have plummeted to around 19-26.
With its soft, pale cream-coloured coat, the Amur leopard differs to other subspecies due to the thickness of its fur, complete with larger, darker spots and rosettes. The animal is well-adapted to walking through snow, spending much of its time in cold, mountainous regions; that said, the isolation of the animal may play a part in its demise (its isolation likely being a direct impact of habitat loss, combined with agricultural and urban development.) A lack of prey in the Amur leopard’s habitat means that the animals have been unable to thrive with insufficient sources of food, and the added issue of poaching has caused huge problems for the species.
In addition to human encroachment, poaching, and climate change, inbreeding activities have also spelt out the demise of the species. Since there are so few Amur leopards left, the remaining population has begun to inbreed, resulting in potential genetic degeneration. As a result, the health of the leopard has been compromised, and the survival rate of cubs has plummeted. A 2006-2007 biomedical analysis by the Wildlife Conservation Society in Russia made note of ‘potential inbreeding-associated health problems’ in three leopards; each of them with significant heart murmurs, and one with abnormal sperm production. Thus, the health issues plaguing the leopards could signal the end for the species.
While there are 173 captive Amur leopards in zoos across the world (54 male, 40 female and 7 unsexed individuals), more support needs to be given to those remaining in the wild, and reintroduction of healthier cats could be paramount to their survival. On top of this, human activities need to be better-considered: without campaigning conservationists, an oil pipeline could have been built through one of the final leopard habitats, and was only rerouted due to uproar. Work is now being done to support protected areas for the big cats; anti-poaching teams have been put in place in the Amur leopard range; and media awareness has been heightened (notably, 2006’s episodes of Planet Earth.) It is hoped that the population of big cats will improve, should they be reintroduced to safeguarded new habitats, though human responsibility will determine the future of the Amur leopard.
If you would like to help protect the animals during their plight, head to our project pages to see how you can get involved.
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