Lost Tortoises of the Indian Ocean – by Matt Stanfield

Strewn across the Indian Ocean to the east of Madagascar, the Mascarene Islands (Mauritius, Réunion and Rodrigues) are well known as the former home of the dodo and other strange extinct birds. However, dodos and their kin were only part of the unique ecosystem encountered by early visitors to these islands. As with Madagascar, the Mascarenes had been geographically cut off from the rest of the world for millions of years prior to human discovery. This isolation combined with their tropical location to produce an abundance of singular forms.

Today it is hard to imagine an environment virtually unaltered by human activity, so thorough has our species’ effect on every part of the biosphere been. Even in 1598, the year in which present-day Mauritius was named by the Dutch, such a task would have been difficult. In fact the Mascarenes were the very last sizeable tropical islands to be settled by humans. Though the Renaissance-era Dutch sailors who stumbled ashore on a warm September day had no way of knowing it, they would be amongst the last humans in history to behold the full splendour of what evolution can conjure on a good-sized tropical canvas.

The Dutch landed in a mountain-ringed bay draped in thick forests, home to well over one hundred times as many endemic flowering plant species as mainland France in an area less than one two-hundredth of the size. Within the forests roamed an array of island oddities. Besides the famed dodo, bulky broad-billed parrots lumbered through the undergrowth, whilst navy-blue pigeons perched above, puffing out crests of slim white feathers. The largest animal inhabitants of this paradise were the giant tortoises (genus Cylindraspis), of which five species were scattered across Mauritius, Réunion and Rodrigues. Giant and unafraid of humans, these creatures made quite an impression on the Dutch, as shown in this fanciful 1601 engraving of mariners riding (a ridiculously oversized) one.

French and Dutch settlers arriving on Réunion and Rodrigues in the seventeenth century found great herds of native tortoises. One early arrival on Rodrigues described whole fields covered in the creatures! Unfortunately for all five Mascarene giant tortoise species, their large size combined with apparent tameness and slow movement to render them ridiculously easy prey. Before refrigeration, islands served as gigantic larders for malnourished and hungry sailors. Faced with abundance, humans responded as they so often have: with rampant plunder.

The slow metabolic rate of the Mascarenes’ biggest natives counted horribly against them. Able to survive without food or water for months on end, they were viewed as an ideal food source, to be loaded alive en masse into ships’ holds. Thousands of captive tortoises died before they could even be eaten, since their shells had diminished in thickness due to an absence of native predators, causing many to be crushed to death within the stockpiles.

Our species’ fixation with oil also played a part in the demise of these animals. Long before the petroleum era, humans already lusted for the substance, searching for it inside living creatures. One seventeenth-century Mauritian governor reports a grisly tableau of dead and dying tortoises with holes smashed into their shells in search of fat to be boiled down. Apparently, up to fifty might be slain before a single fat individual was found, with each barrel of “tortoise oil” requiring the deaths of at least 400 fat testudines.

Unsurprisingly, such wanton slaughter soon turned beguiling plenty into vanishing rarity. Even by the standards of a Europe that burned, beheaded and hanged tens of thousands of its own as witches during this period, the treatment of Mascarene tortoises was seen as reckless by officialdom. As early as 1639, legislation was put in place on Mauritius to protect its tortoises. Sadly this proved ineffective and it would not be until 1771 that the remaining tortoises would receive meaningful protection.

It is unclear exactly how many of the original five species remained extant by 1771. Certainly the number of survivors would have been very low. The bountiful lands of Mauritius, Réunion and Rodrigues had largely been laid waste by slash-and-burn deforestation, with feral cats and pigs wandering freely amidst remaining tortoise nesting sites.

During this twilight of the tortoises, a handful of scientific observations were made, including at least one image of a live animal. That 1792 sketch, reproduced below, shows a Réunion giant tortoise. It was the largest species, capable of growing over a metre in length.

Tantalising scraps of evidence, including an alleged photograph of a living tortoise, survive from the late nineteenth century. However, the last generally-accepted record of Mascarene giant tortoises was in 1844. A British expedition to Round Island, off the coast of Mauritius, found several living tortoises. A female was captured and laid eggs, with the hatchlings distributed amongst various friends of one of the explorers. There is no information available as to which of the two Mauritian species was found on Round Island, nor is there anything known about what became of the hatchlings. Given that goats and rabbits were introduced to Round Island shortly thereafter, it is probable that one of the hatchlings became the endling of the genus Cylindraspis.

Disappearing when they did, at a time when modern science was still emerging, the Mascarene giant tortoises occupy a strange halfway house between poorly-understood human-induced casualties of the early modern era and better-known lost species of more recent times. Unlike some of their vanished compatriots, such as the Mascarene grey parakeet, their life appearance is fairly well-known, but there is still a deep air of mystery about them. The world’s only taxidermied specimen is kept in Paris, in the sombre setting of the Room of Endangered & Extinct Species. Below is a (slightly blurred) picture which seems a poignant reminder of these peculiar giants, now forever receding into the mists of time.

Images: Public domain   

(Re)visiting Marizy – by Emma Pavans de Ceccatty & Joanne Matthews

Map of Marizy by Emma Pavans de Ceccatty

Emma Pavans de Ceccatty and Joanne Matthews met on a permaculture design course in 2015 and have since developed a dialogue about art and sustainability. Both are artists, environmental explorers, and alchemists of empathy, experience and fact.

 Over the month of November 2016 we collaborated in response to a call out for Remembrance Day for Lost Species. Delving into the systemic reasons for loss of species, we encountered the disconnect between humans in the city and their environment. The project, (re)visiting Marizy, was an intuitive and experimental series of attempts at connection with place.

Emma focused on reviving the relationship with her homeland, Marizy, France. Inspired by Emma’s place-specific intention, Joanne explored what it means to have empathy for a distant and abstract land. The Aral Sea, Uzbekistan, called to Joanne and she intuitively attempted to develop empathy for this place, as if it were her home.

Through conversations and creative exchanges, we embarked on this experimental collaboration. The on-going project flows in a reflective and constructive way, learning from our experiments to hone the next steps. The process has manifested in a series of performances, actions, rituals, paintings and poems, documented on a dedicated blog http://revisitingmarizy.wordpress.com


Ritual documentation by Emma Pavans de Ceccatty

Marizy, in the Saône-et-Loire area region of France, is a green and marshy land shaped by hedges, lakes, rivers, streams and ponds. It is lauded for its resilient ecosystem. As a predominantly smallholding, cow-grazing agricultural area, people’s livelihoods depend on the health of the land and the water. There has consequently been real effort and concern for the wellbeing of the wildlife and environment, though this is drying out with the urbanisation and industrialisation of local minds.

‘So far, the results of my exploration and connection with this land have brought me to challenge my assumptions that Marizy was an unhealthy landscape. I wonder now, is what I see here what stewarding Nature looks like? Is this contemporary romanticism?’

The Aral Sea was once the third-largest saltwater lake in the world. It is now reduced to a tenth of its original size, leaving a bare and deserted landscape behind. Industrial needs and large-scale agricultural greed drained and dammed the lake, ending the century-old fishing tradition and livelihood from the surrounding villages, in just one generation.

Ghost Factory sketch/  Aral Sea by Joanne Matthews

‘My relationship with the Aral Sea has just begun. I was drawn to the body of water through no logical means. I feel sad and regretful for the wate’rs demise, torture and the many disappearing species that have been lost.’

Through this place-specific attempt at connection, Emma and Joanne process and translate their intellectual research and embodied experience into illustrations, audio work, writing and performance language. We are continuing our work together beyond this initial month-long research period to now focus on the themes and questions that we have uncovered.

Follow the (re)Visiting blog for more explorations.

 

What do you call the last of a species? – by Michelle Nijhuis

Painting by Bjorn Lie

This article was originally published in the New Yorker and is quoted from here with the permission of the author.  The word ‘endling’ was coined twenty years ago by an American doctor, Bruce Webster. He meant it to refer to the last remaining members of human families, and initially the word gained little purchase in common language. Then, around five years later, an exhibition about thylacines in the National Museum of Australia told the story of the the last thylacine, and described it as an endling.

‘…The exhibit gave the word visibility and institutional endorsement … and in the years that followed, Webster’s invention inspired an essay collection (“No More Endlings”), a chamber-orchestra composition (“Endling, Opus 72”), a contemporary ballet (“Self-Encasing Trilogy #1: Endling”), a doom-metal album, at least one art exhibition, and several works of science fiction. In a recent paper in the journal Environmental Philosophy, the historian Dolly Jørgensen notes that writers and artists are drawn to both the emotional power of the concept and the poignancy of the word itself, whose old-fashioned, Tolkienesque suffix—like “Halfling” or “Enting”—evokes a lost world.

Yet nobody seems to apply the word to the last member of a human family, as Webster originally intended. Perhaps that’s because, as Jørgensen observes, “a familial meaning of ‘endling’ does not have the same cultural currency as talking about species extinction.” The word has value, in other words, but the value is of a different nature than Webster expected. People have sometimes given proper names to particular animal endlings: Martha was the last passenger pigeon; Celia the last Pyrenean ibex; Turgi the last Partula turgida, a Polynesian tree snail; Booming Ben the last heath hen; and Lonesome George the last Pinta Island tortoise. By inventing a noun that describes all of them, though, Webster serendipitously connected them to one another, and to a larger, less graspable sense of loss. And this, Jørgensen suggests, has given artists, writers, and others a new way to reckon with the meaning of extinction.

Unfortunately, there is no end of endlings. One of the world’s three surviving northern white rhinos will soon become an endling, as will one of the thirty surviving vaquita porpoises, down from sixty just last year.’

Read the full New Yorker article.

Read Dolly Jorgenson’s original research.