The turn of the new year finds us reflecting on months gone by with fondness, but while 2018 saw many positive moments, gone with it are several species which have sadly become extinct. From the loss of Sudan, the last-remaining male northern rhino, to the demise of an array of bird species, 2018 was a memorable year for all the wrong reasons – and with another species having died out on New Year’s Day 2019, it is feared that this year could be another negative milestone for conservation.
Already marred by troubling tales relating to coral bleaching, climate change and other species at risk, the conservation world was shaken by the passing of an iconic individual. Having spent much of his life in captivity, Sudan’s final years were spent at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya – though his 45 years on earth were considered to be something of a miracle, considering the plight of rhinos as a whole. Sudan was known around the globe and was affectionately referred to as ‘the most eligible bachelor in the world’, but even his nickname was a sad reminder of what is, ultimately, a conservation tragedy: with no other males left remaining, the notion of the northern white rhino being bred is deemed a relative impossibility. Add to that the fact that the only female northern white rhinos left are descendants of Sudan (29-year old daughter Najin and 18-year-old granddaughter Fatu, both of whom are too unhealthy to deliver a calf), it is profoundly unlikely we will see the natural birth of another northern white rhino ever again. (Banner image of Sudan credited to Ami Vitale, amivitale.com)
While Sudan’s passing didn’t quite signal the death of the species overall, there were a number of species which were either wiped out or believed to be extinct in 2018. Perhaps the most notable of all is the erasure of the Spix’s Macaw: a bird species instantly recognisable, thanks to its portrayal in 2011’s animated film ‘Rio’.
Native to Brazil, the Spix’s macaw is an infamously elusive species. It was first discovered in 1819 by a German naturalist named Johann Baptist von Spix, who – in addition to coining the animal’s name – noted its rarity. So rare was the bird, in fact, that the next recorded sighting didn’t take place for another 84 years.
Prior to the passage of Brazil’s Wildlife Protection Act (1967), the Spix macaw had become a victim of the illicit bird trade. The passage of the act saw that Spix owners were forced underground, but the illegal trade of birds persisted, reaching new heights in 1980. Traders and trappers continued to remove Spix’s from the wild, and by the early 80s the bird was presumed to be extinct in the wild.
Over the years, naturalists have conducted field surveys in search of the Spix’s macaw, but results have been disappointing. Just five specimens were found in the Curaca region of Brazil back in 1985; 1986 saw three of them in the same area; and only two remained by 1987. It is possible that these ‘final’ two birds were the same ones captured for trade later in the same year. A single male was recorded in 1990, but by October 2000 had disappeared, with the final sightings of any specimen being recorded in 2016, though it is thought that 2016’s sighting was actually of bird which had escaped captivity. Some 60-80 captive birds may represent the remainder of the species overall.
While the IUCN Red List views the Spix’s status as ‘critically endangered’, it is believed that the species is now, in fact, extinct in the wild. The creation of a dam in its known habitat makes it difficult to imagine how the bird could survive; the added strain of deforestation and the illegal pet trade makes the notion of their survival practically inconceivable.
(Credit to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; photographer Paul E. Baker)
Another bird species believed to have been lost to extinction is the Po’ouli, a Hawaiian songbird. Discovered only within the last 50 years, the Po’ouli’s known time on this earth may have been tragically shortlived.
Around the time of its discovery, the Po’ouli was understood to have had a population of around 150, but its decline has been somewhat rapid – and, frustratingly, could possibly have been avoided altogether. The introduction of invasive alien species and the consequent destruction of its habitats (due to feral pigs) saw the bird’s population drop from potential hundreds down to just three: despite the best efforts of conservation groups and governments alike, the loss took place between 1985 and 1997 and the species has so far failed to recover.
Of the three birds remaining, only one had its gender confirmed, and in September 2004 the male bird had been transferred to the Maui Bird Conservation Centre in the hopes of finding a mate with whom to breed offspring. Unfortunately, a mate was unable to be found by the time the male had died just two months later (November 2004).
With just two captive birds remaining, the conservation of the Po’ouli (and the subsequent release of any offspring) seems uncertain: in addition to the gender of the birds being unknown, they are both over the age of 15 years old, and therefore unlikely to be fertile. The only conceivable future for the species relies on cloning, as tissue samples were taken from the male captured in 2004, but a failure to clone from these samples will signify the end of a remarkably rare species: no other bird, living or fossil, has a structure similar to that of the songbird, potentially making the Po’ouli one of the most unique species on earth.
(Credit to Ciro Albano - NE Brazil Birding)
Two other bird species to have gone extinct are the Alagoas Foliage-gleaner and the Cryptic Treehunter: thought to be the same species up until 2002, the pair were discovered just 40 years ago (at the time, the discovery was believed to be just that of the Alagoas Foliage-gleaner, pictured). The birds are endemic to Brazil and, much like the Spix’s macaw, seem to have been wiped out due to habitat destruction. While little is known about both birds, it is believed that the final sighting of the Cryptic Treehunter was in 2007, while the Alagoas Foliage-gleaner has not been seen since 2011.
According to the IUCN Red List, more than 26,500 species are threatened with extinction – a number which equates to more than 27% of all assessed species. Interestingly, birds are thought to be of the ‘least’ risk, making up 14% of that figure, while amphibians have the unenviable position as the ‘most’ at-risk (around 40%). Our planet relies on all species for its survival and, in turn, each of these species rely on us to keep them alive, too. The charisma of animals such as orangutans, rhinos and the seldom-spotted vaquita allow them to remain at the forefront of our imagination and, while their populations have suffered significantly over the years, it is important that we don’t disregard other vital species in our quest to better the world.
While 2018 wasn’t the most critical year for animal extinction, the disappearance of the above species plays to an alarming pattern which has already been noted by scientists. According to the Centre of Biological Diversity, the Earth is losing species at 1000-10,000 times the ‘natural’ rate: while ‘background’ extinction is estimated to happen at a rate of 1-5 species per year, scientists predict that we’re actually losing dozens of species per day – that includes insects, arthropods, and various plant species, in addition to animals. (Similar figures are also reported by the leading global environmental authority, the UN Environment Programme.) The Centre of Biological Diversity doubled down on their worrying statements, stressing that the Earth is ‘in the midst of its 6th mass-extinction’ of plants and animals and that we are currently experiencing the ‘worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of dinosaurs 65 million years ago.’
As the world ushered in the new year, one Hawaiian resident failed to emerge. A 14-year-old snail named George had, sadly, missed his opportunity to see in 2019 – and with his sudden death, came the end of his species’ time on this earth. A much-loved local celebrity, George was the last remaining member of the Achatinella apexfulva family, and a mascot of endangered Hawaiian snails. Throughout his 14 years he was visited by thousands of school children and had aided education just by existing; he’d also survived through a pathogen outbreak in his ‘home’ (a lab) which had tragically taken the lives of his snail siblings and friends.
The tale of George’s solitude is a sad one, stemming back hundreds of years before his birth. Snails just like George had once roamed the land in their masses, with almost 800 varieties of land-snail having existed up until at least 1887. But somewhere between the 1780s and the 1900s, it had all begun to go wrong: from the arrival of British captain George Dixon in 1786 (Dixon was gifted with a lei made from the shells of George’s ancestors) to the Europeans who had cruelly ‘collected’ the specimens to near-extinction, the once-vast variety of snails in Hawaii had started to disappear. The arrival of another species, the wolfsnail, would prove critical to the remaining varieties on the islands: while the wolfsnail had intentionally been brought over to aid the ‘population control’ of the giant African snail, it instead decided to gorge on any and all snail species it could find. Thus began the beginning of the end of George’s ancestors, their neighbours, and Hawaii’s snail populations as a whole.
(Credit to Aaron K.Yoshino of Honolulu Magazine)
So, why is George’s death so significant? Other than having lost another species to the hands of time, the demise of Hawaii’s snails provides yet another example of how the meddling of human beings can bear devastating results of our animal counterparts. If George Dixon hadn’t had been given that lei, perhaps hundreds more snails could have survived. If the Europeans hadn’t arrived, eager to collect these new and fascinating ‘things’, far fewer species would have been driven to an early grave. If the intentional relocation (and invasion) of the wolfsnail had not occurred, Hawaii’s conservation landscape could look an awful lot different today.
While it is true that extinctions could happen with or without human beings, it’s impossible to ignore the extraordinarily evident impact that we’re having on the planet – an impact which has proven to be detrimental thus far and could potentially become cataclysmic in the coming years. Proposed notions of the human race being wiped out are, of course, extreme (there are plenty of people who seem to think the eradication of the human race would be the best possible thing for the planet – true, perhaps, but a little over the top at least); that said, our inability to act sooner has seen too many species pushed to, and over, the brink. But perhaps not all hope is lost.
In the year of veganism, environmental consciousness, and a push towards political change, 2018 wasn’t all doom and gloom. Major steps were taken towards bettering our planet, and the survival of some species proved promising, but we also began to acknowledge that we have to work harder if we want the planet – and its inhabitants – to survive. The possible resurrection of species such as the northern white rhino may provide a glimmer of hope, but recognising the power of pre-emptive changes could prevent more species from heading the same way as Sudan (mentioned earlier) to begin with. Rather than working to raise the dead, we can work towards the preservation of our planet and its animals – recognising our own power, for better or for worse, is key to that. So let’s make 2019 the year to do better.
Which changes will you be making to better the planet in 2019? Let us know in the comments!
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