The new year is a time for looking back and a time for looking ahead. Oh, I know I’m a couple weeks late, but there’s rarely a bad time for introspection, is there? What I’m looking back at today are the things our human family has irretrievably lost: the many species that have been declared extinct in 2011. I’m looking ahead to what we might lose next if we don’t do something about it.
The Western Black Rhino was declared extinct in 2011. (Photo credit: Senckenberg Museum via Wikimedia Commons.)
The late Douglas Adams, most famous for writing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, really woke me to the cause of species conservation. In 1989, he worked together with photographer and conservationist Mark Carwardine for a BBC radio series, which also became a book (published in 1990). It documents their journey to see some of the world’s most critically endangered species, while they were still around.
The Eastern Cougar was declared extinct by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011. (Photo credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service.)
I read the book in 2006 and wondered at the time if some of the species Adams discussed in the book had already disappeared since its publication. The next year I read a news report that the Yangtse River Dolphin, one of the less hopeful cases Adams had documented (since the Chinese government was making no conservation efforts), had just been declared extinct.
The Yangtze River Dolphin was the first aquatic mammal to become extinct since the 1950s. (Image credit: Alessio Marrucci via Wikimedia Commons.)
On the other hand, the funny flightless parrot, the Kakapo, has not only held on but has become a symbol of wildlife conservation in New Zealand. Efforts in the 20 years since Adams’ books was published have preserved the 100 or so individuals and even grown the population ever so slightly.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources has compiled data on endangered species for more than 60 years. The famed IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is the go-to source for every story on species loss. Fact is, it’s woefully incomplete. With over 30,000 species disappearing every year, many are gone before they’ve even been catalogued. We literally don’t know what we’re missing.
Perhaps more to the point, what do we stand to lose next? Here’s a small selection from the 2011 IUCN photo gallery of critically endangered species.
Photo credit: Walter Siegmund via Wikimedia Commons.
The San Jose Brush Rabbit, found on San Jose Island in Mexico was uplisted to critically endangered in 2011. Feral cats, human disturbance and habitat loss have caused populations to continuously plummet.
Photo credit: IUCN.
The European Mink used to be an incredibly common species across the continent. But, as the Passenger Pigeon showed us, even the most widespread species isn’t immune to extinction. The European Mink is on the brink.
Photo credit: LRBurdak via Wikimedia Commons.
As a child I was obsessed with recent human-caused extinctions, particularly of megafauna. Ten thousand years ago, our ancestors lived in a different world, one that has been denied us. The Moa, a massive bird wiped out by New Zealand hunter-gatherers a few centuries ago, was such a beast. The little-known Great Indian Bustard is small in comparison. But at 15 kg, it’s one of the larger and more magnificent birds still around, and there are very few of them left.
Image credit: North American herpetology via Wikimedia Commons.
The Bog Turtle, found in the Eastern United States, is a protected species, but is more and more popular as a pet the rarer it gets. At this rate, the last surviving members of the species could die alone in individual pet store tanks before anyone realizes there’s no breeding population left.
Photo credit: Michael Becker via Wikimedia Commons.
It’s not only animals that can become extinct. We are also losing plants every day. The Chinese Water Fir is suspected of being extirpated from China, and surviving populations in Vietnam and Laos are also critically endangered from the same causes that wiped out the Chinese population: primarily agricultural clearing and logging.
I could rewrite this post a dozen times and list completely different species each time without breaking a sweat. It’s frankly a bit overwhelming to grasp how much we’re losing on a daily basis. News headlines speak of cloning mammoths (and don’t get me wrong, I read these speculations with as much interest as anyone), but it’s small consolation for the immense loss we’ve experienced in recent decades.
It can be difficult to allocate funds to causes with so many pressing issues screaming for attention at once: climate change, human rights, disaster relief. Species and habitat loss is an old story. But it’s not necessary to settle on one cause to the exclusion of all others. And when a species is gone, it usually is gone for good.
So if I may humbly suggest a resolution for 2012, please consider earmarking a portion of your charitable giving to conservation. Global initiatives (like the World Wildlife Federation) and local ones (like Nature Canada, the Sierra Club, or Ducks Unlimited) are all eager for your support.
Top photo credit: Sheep81 via Wikimedia Commons.