Painting a Glimpse of Extinction – by Sophie Gainsley

I’ve been on a journey, accompanied by poet Harry Man (1), to memorialise Britain’s vanishing wildlife.  These creatures, along with countless others, are disregarded as we rush about our busy, hectic lives each day in concrete metropolises.  But outside in the natural, rural worlds which we so heavily depend on for our food, clothing and pretty much everything else, each individual creature is entwined in an ecosystem more complex than we know.  Many are disappearing before we can catalogue and study them – a process critical to learning how to protect them.  Every single one, from microscopic bugs, fungi and the green slime that clings to rocks, to bigger creatures like birds and mammals, are part of a global issue – a mass extinction, the extent of which is hard to grasp.

‘Finders Keepers’

Image: ‘Starry Sky’ from ‘Finders Keepers’ illustration by Sophie Gainsley

Our capitalist, greed-fuelled, unconscious actions of the past centuries have set in motion what scientists are calling ‘The Sixth Extinction’. Put concisely by New York writer Elizabeth Kolbert: ‘Over the last half-billion years, there have been five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us.’

It is hard to believe this fact, living in a man-made world in our built-up, closed-in cities and towns. But it has been revealed by scientists, that we “…have only identified about 10-15 percent, at most, of existing species. Most types of life are unknown, rendering the great dying crisscrossing the globe eerily invisible to human eyes and silent to human ears,” as Tikkun Magazine states. (2)

The main things which are driving species over the edge ( -some estimates calculate that we are losing up to 200 species a day -) are mass habitat destruction such as deforestation and pollution (3). Trees are being burned and logged at a scary rate. 80% of the world’s forests have already been destroyed and every 2 seconds, an area the size of a football field is destroyed. (4)

Return of the Humpback

But it’s not all doom and gloom!  There are countless amazing conservation projects all around the word and a myriad of dazzling success stories.

Image: ‘Hello World’ illustration by Sophie Gainsley

When first observed by mariners, the Humpback whale was named ‘The Merry Whale’.   Not so merry is the fact that their curiosity and fearlessness made them easy targets for Whale Hunters.  Add to this, their predictable migration routes and what you were left with was a marine massacre.  Humpback populations were ravaged across the globe, so much so, that when the International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned commercial whaling of Humpbacks in 1966, there were only 5,000 left.  This number may sound like a lot,  but it was estimated in an study published by Global Conservation (5) that Humpback populations were reduced by up to 90% of their original size. There were only a few hundred Humpbacks left in North Atlantic waters, where many traditionally feed on the rich marine ecology during the Spring and Summer.


Advice Whale: poem by Harry Mann, image by Sophie Gainsley

Since then, the Humpback has made an impressive comeback.  They are now 80,000 strong worldwide and went from being labelled ‘endangered’ in 1988 to being considered of ‘least concern’ as recently as 2008.  This is just one of thousands of conservation success stories well worth celebrating!

Our project, Finders Keepers (6), created by Harry Man, aims to also raise awareness of conservation taking place all over the UK.  This includes the protection of habits such as our ancient woodlands and hedgerows which are threatened by the increase of agriculture and which creatures rely on.

The Toothed Threadwort, the Bastard Balm and the Wormwood Moonshiner

As I scrolled down the long list of endangered UK species, some of the more imaginative and entertaining names jumped out.  Among them, I found the quaint ‘Grizzled Skipper’, the ‘Grayling’ and ‘Bastard Balm’, all imaginative names for different butterfly species.  Meanwhile an unsuspecting algae goes by the name of the ‘Toothed Threadwort’ and a ribbed black beetle, the ‘Wormwood Moonshiner’.  Even in the most unlikely of places, the British sense of humour prevails and reminds us of our abundant imagination and creativity.  It is these traits and our ability for forethought and planning which have enabled us to survive against the odds and thrive in most environments across Earth until today.  There is much hope that these same traits will enable us to undo some of the damage we have caused and turn back the clock, to conserve threatened species. Or in the words of David Attenborough, as he beautifully concluded the BBC ‘Planet Earth’ series; “Our planet is still full of wonders and as we explore we gain not only understanding but power. It’s not just the future of the whale that today lies in our hands, it’s the survival of the natural world on all parts of the living planet. We can now destroy or we can cherish. The choice is ours.”


Image: ‘The Woods’ from ‘Finders Keepers’ Illustration by Sophie Gainsley










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