Bestiary – by Joanna Macy

Bronx Zoo, Alexis Rockman, 2012-13

Short-tailed albatross

Whooping crane

Gray wolf

Woodland caribou

Hawksbill sea turtle

Rhinoceros

 

The list of endangered species keeps growing longer every year.  With too many names to hold in our mind, how do we honor the passing of life?  What funerals or farewells are appropriate?

 

Reed warbler

Swallowtail butterfly

Bighorn sheep

Indian python

Howler monkey

Sperm whale

Blue whale

 

Dive me deep, brother whale, in this time we have left. Deep in our mother ocean where I once swam, gilled and finned. The salt from those early seas still runs in my tears. Tears aren’t enough anymore. Give me a song, a song for a sadness too vast for my heart, for a rage too wild for my throat.

 

Giant sable antelope

Wyoming toad

Grizzly bear

Brown bear

Bactrian camel

Nile crocodile

Chinese alligator

 

Ooze me, alligator, in the mud whence I came. Belly me slow in the rich primordial soup, cradle of our molecules. Let me wallow again, before we drain your swamp and pave it over.

 

Gray bat

Ocelot

Pocket mouse

Sockeye salmon

Tasmanian kangaroo

Hawaiian goose

Audouin’s seagull

 

Quick, lift off. Sweep me high over the coast and out, farther out.  Don’t land here. Oilspills coat the beach, rocks, sea. I cannot spread my wings glued with tar.  Fly me from what we have done, fly me far.

 

Golden parakeet

West African ostrich

Florida panther

Galapagos penguin

Imperial pheasant

Snow leopard

Mexican prairie dog

 

Hide me in a hedgerow, badger. Can’t you find one? Dig me a tunnel through leaf-mold and roots, under the trees that once defined our fields. My heart is bulldozed and plowed over.  Burrow me a labyrinth deeper than longing.

 

Thick-billed parrot

San Francisco garter snake

Desert bandicoot

Molokai thrush

California condor

Lotus blue butterfly

 

Crawl me out of here, caterpillar. Spin me a cocoon. Wind me to sleep in a shroud of silk, where in patience my bones will dissolve. I’ll wait as long as all creation if only it will come again — and I take wing.

 

Atlantic ridley turtle

Coho salmon

Helmeted hornbill

Marine otter

Humpback whale

Steller sea-lion

Monk seal

 

Swim me out beyond the ice floes, mama. Where are you? Boots squeeze my ribs, clubs drum my fur, the white world goes black with the taste of my blood.

 

Gibbon

Sand gazelle

Swamp deer

Musk deer

Cheetah

Chinchilla

Asian elephant

African elephant

 

Sway me slowly through the jungle. There still must be jungle somewhere, my heart drips with green secrets. Hose me down by the waterhole; there is buckshot in my hide. Tell me old stories while you can remember.

 

Desert tortoise

Crested ibis

Hook-billed kite

Mountain zebra

Mexican bobcat

Andrew’s frigatebird

 

In the time when his world, like ours, was ending, Noah had a list of the animals, too. We picture him standing by the gangplank, calling their names, checking them off on his scroll. Now we also are checking them off.

 

Ivory-billed woodpecker

Indus river dolphin

West Indian manatee

Wood stork

 

We reenact Noah’s ancient drama, but in reverse, like a film running backwards, the animals exiting.

 

Ferret

Gorilla

Jaguar

Wolf

 

Your tracks are growing fainter. Wait. Wait. This is a hard time.  Don’t leave us alone in a world we have wrecked.

Hawaii’s emptying skies – by Matt Stanfield

Paintings of Oahu akialoa (top) & Lanai akialoa (bottom). Images public domain

Not long ago, the Hawaiian archipelago supported a plethora of pollinating birds. Today, many are extinct, with others feared lost or experiencing worrisome declines. Since the early nineteenth-century, twelve of Hawaii’s specialist avian nectar-eaters have become extinct, leaving at most eight known species behind. Seeing images of all twelve of these birds gathered together in one place is an effective and affecting way of getting a true sense of Hawaii’s losses.

The Hawaiian Islands are thought to have first been settled fewer than eight hundred years ago, at the tail end of Polynesian expansion across the Pacific. The arrival of humans in these isolated ecosystems bought with it our species’ calling card: an extinction pulse. The Polynesians, along with the pigs, dogs, chickens and rats who accompanied them, are thought to have been responsible for the loss of many lifeforms.

European arrival from the late eighteenth-century onwards contributed its own wave of death and destruction. Smallpox and other diseases killed many native Hawaiians, and the fauna of the islands experienced further depletion.

Hawaiian nectarivorous birds are divided into two groups: honeycreepers and honeyeaters (though the latter are no relation of the other bird species which are referred to as honeyeaters) Akialoa were honeycreepers, in a genus containing four living members when Europeans arrived in Hawaii. Today all are gone.

The Lanai akialoa disappeared first. Its decline seems to have predated European arrival, as fossils suggest it once inhabited other islands besides Lanai. Habitat loss and the ongoing damage wrought on Hawaii’s ecosystem by the Polynesians’ pigs likely doomed it.

Oahu’s akialoa fared a little better, with the last report dating from 1940. Forest clearance for American sugarcane ventures deeply damaged these birds. They also suffered a more sinister scourge: avian influenza. Spread by mosquitoes, who may have arrived in the bilge water of whaling ships, this disease continues to ravage Hawaiian avifauna to this day.

Paintings of Hawaii mamo (top) & black mamo (bottom). Images public domain

The Big Island’s Hawaii mamo was imperilled before James Cook’s 1778 landfall on the archipelago. The birds’ six to eight yellow feathers were used to manufacture garments for Hawaiian nobles and royalty. One particular cloak may have cost an obscene sixty thousand mamo their lives. Still, the Hawaii mamo might yet live today without the bitter blows dealt by European-led deforestation for cattle ranching, and avian flu.

Often seen with a pollen-dusted forehead after feeding on lobelia flowers, the black mamo, whose range had already been reduced by the Polynesians, was scientifically described in 1893. The last recorded bird was shot fourteen years later. The introduction of cattle, deer and mongooses is blamed for the loss of this species.

Taxidermic greater amakihi. Image public domain

Eating both nectar and insects, the greater amakihi does not appear to have been known to the natives of Hawaii’s Big Island. Western collectors discovered this bird perhaps only a decade before Western investors destroyed it. Scientifically described in 1892, the species was last recorded in 1901, just before its tiny home range was cleared to make way for a sugarcane plantation.

Painting of female (left) & male (right) Laysan honeycreepers. Image public domain

The Laysan honeycreeper, which favoured the nectar of its island’s native flowers, was last recorded in 1923. Europeans, not Polynesians, seem to have been the first people to settle Laysan. Just one of them served to seal the birds’ fate: Max Schlemmer, who released rabbits there in the 1890s, hoping to use them for meat. The rabbits bred explosively, eradicating most of the vegetation on which the Laysan honeycreepers fed.

Taxidermic lesser akialoa (top) & Kauai akialoa (bottom). Images public domain

So far as can be gleaned, none of the akialoa species were common by the time Europeans reached the Hawaiian Islands. Both of these pollinators were ultimately undone by the sugarcane industry’s ruination of forests working in tandem with the invisible spread of mosquito-borne avian diseases. The lesser akialoa has not been reported since 1940. In 1969, when the ultimate agent of its demise first walked on the moon, the Kauai akialoa was last reported. With its passing, the entire akialoa genus ended.

Taxidermic kioea. Image public domain

Whilst gravely damaged by human activity, several nectarivorous Hawaiian honeycreepers yet persist. The Hawaiian honeyeater family (Mohoidae) was less fortunate. They are generally thought to be the only avian family extinct in modern times. Even within an order as large as that of the perching birds, losing a whole family is significant. For instance chameleons, in all their distinctiveness, represent a single family amongst Earth’s snakes and reptiles. The kioea, last recorded in 1859, is thought to have been a victim of logging, introduced species and hunting.

Paintings of Oahu Oo (top) & Hawaii Oo (bottom). Images public domain

Black, yellow and beautiful, these two species have been extinct for some time. The Oahu Oo vanished nearly two hundred years ago, last being recorded in 1837. Hunting by native Hawaiians for its yellow feathers may have contributed, though the prime causes of extinction are thought to have been introduced disease and habitat destruction in the wake of European contact. The Hawaii Oo was last recorded in 1934, suffering a similar fate to its relative on Oahu.

Taxidermic Kauai Oo (top) & Bishop’s Oo (bottom). Images public domain

Bishop’s Oo was last definitively recorded in 1904, although reports persisted for decades afterwards on its former island home of Molokai. As with other species in this piece, fossil remains indicate it may have been more widespread before the arrival of Polynesian settlers. In recent times, the range of these birds was much more restricted. The most recent notable sighting was in 1981. Given this species has not been unequivocally seen alive in over a century, it is surely lost now. Cattle ranching and pineapple cultivation have much altered Molokai, and introduced avian diseases are as problematic there as elsewhere.

Kauai’s Oo was the last survivor of the Mohoidae. Once common, it entered a steep decline during the early twentieth century. Again, habitat destruction and disease-bearing mosquitoes were the key culprits. In 1987, the mating song of a male Kauai Oo was recorded. Over untold millennia, his species had evolved a delicate call-and-response duet. But for Earth’s last Kauai Oo, there would be no answer. He died later that year.

 

 

 

She Will Bury Them – by Megan Hollingsworth

she will bury them from Extinction Witness on Vimeo.

 

She counts

about 50,000 dead

 

That is,

about 300 colonies

 

And she will bury them

 

Numbers she counts

so many

 

That is,

more than enough

 

And she will bury them all

 

In numbers

many hands gather

 

so she can bury them

 

Begging,

 

Who will love the flowers?

 

Author’s note: The poem voiced in SHE WILL BURY THEM counts the cost in one spraying of neonicotinoids, a class of neuro-active insecticides that killed about 50,000 bees in Wilsonville, Oregon summer 2013. The poem closes with an honest question asked by someone uncertain of who she is becoming.

On Thylacine Day 2017 – by Matt Stanfield

The last captive thylacine died on September 7th, 1936

There’s nothing else like the thylacine. Nearly twenty years on, the memory of first discovering these bewitching animals remains vivid. As a child, my mum gave me her old collection of nature magazines from the mid-seventies. One particular article stood out.

‘Is the Thylacine Really Gone?’ the title asked. The piece was about five pages long, lavishly illustrated with grisly images of grim-faced men in Victorian agricultural dress posing with the corpses of one of the most captivating animals I had ever seen. Arguably the thylacine is a strange species for me to be so drawn to. Due to some negative experiences in the past, I’m not especially keen on dogs, to which thylacines are often likened. To my mind though, they’re at most akin to a highly experimental take on the dog.

Besides the tale of these animals’ persecution at the hands of a miserably myopic sheep lobby, the article also focused heavily on continued reports of sightings from Tasmania. Even for a piece written forty years ago, the notion of surviving thylacines was extremely optimistic. Whilst I am fairly certain that “Benjamin” was not truly the last thylacine, the notion of the species holding out until even the late nineteen-fifties seems highly improbable. Like most people with an interest in the thylacine, I would dearly love for a miraculous rediscovery to occur, but the odds on that are so tiny as to be insignificant.

However, believing that the thylacine is forever lost to the world does little to diminish what has proven an enduring obsession. Reading the story of these scandalously vilified marsupials not only awoke an interest which occasionally induces an adrenaline rush on glimpsing a mangy urban fox in southern England, but was the beginning of a sense of profound anger at human stupidity and greed.

This anger, aimed at the craven irresponsibility of so many in positions of influence, who play to the basest of human emotions and are so quick to find a convenient scapegoat to let themselves off the hook, drives my involvement in environmental concerns. This frustration at the deep and malignant injustices which are perpetrated every day, to the detriment of life itself, began with the thylacine’s tale.

After reading that first article, I started seeking out anything and everything thylacine-related. Books, TV shows, newspaper articles, I devoured them all. Sometimes I would draw thylacines, which is an excellent way to get a sense of how singular these animals truly were. The highlight was always natural history museums. No longer was it just about the dinosaurs – the unfashionable corners of the mammal exhibits held a new allure. Perhaps I hadn’t fully grasped the concept of taxidermy, or maybe I was caught up in the magical thinking of childhood, but on staring at the faded skins I half-felt if I wished hard enough, the scraps of creature behind the glass might reanimate.

A little later, I pinned my hopes on cloning. Sadly, even the wonders of genetic science are not yet equal to the task of returning this iconic ghost to the mortal realm. They may well never be: thylacines were behaviourally complex enough that even if one were to shamble stiffly out of a laboratory, it would not and could not know how to actually be what it supposedly was. The thylacine’s closest living relative is the numbat, an insectivore whose adult size is barely bigger than that of a thylacine joey.

Adult male thylacine skull. Skulls are the most common relics, perhaps owing to the Tasmanian government’s extermination bounty being paid per head.

Thylacines today might be no more than memories and relics, but I believe that these matter immensely, and not only for their scientific value. The importance of seeing extinct animals’ remains first-hand was never clearer to me than at the French national museum of natural history. Within a darkened hall dedicated to extinct and threatened species, skin and bone testify to human vandalism.

Each skeleton, skin and pickled corpse of a species lost because of us is a vital reminder of our place as increasingly unchecked global superpredators. If extinction is a spectrum, the terminal phase may be for an organism to be altogether forgotten. As long as pictures, photographs, footage and the physical remains of our victims endure, it is that much harder to downplay the cost of humanity’s ways. Seeing so many vanished creatures in a single room in central Paris sparked a sense of coming reckoning for all that we have done, and do.

Possibly the only photograph of a live thylacine in the wild. Image public domain.

The above photograph, though grainy, small, and of uncertain origin, is thought to show a sight which no-one will ever see again. Thylacines walk Tasmania’s woodland no more, for the small and stupid reason of panic over the safety of sheep. By the time the slaughter of these animals was recognised for the abomination it was, the hour was too late.

There are other “thylacines” though. They are those similarly unique species who are approaching extinction right now. Lots can be found at http://www.edgeofexistence.org/

Should the thylacine’s demise move you, spare a thought for the elusive saola, the mighty Philippine eagle, or the gorgeous Malagasy rainbow frog. Without effective action, all these and innumerable others could be following the thylacine into oblivion soon enough.

Infected/ Bee-Jewelled – by Simon Park

As part of our series of blog posts on pollinators and pollinator-inspired art in the lead-up to this year’s Remembrance Day for Lost Species, we are showcasing the creative work of  scientist Simon Park.

Infected and its sister project Bee-Jewelled blend horror and beauty to explore the effects of pesticides on bee populations.

Infected

Infected, 2017. Medium: a found dead bumble bee and elemental Sulphur

This work imagines pollen contaminated with bee-killing pesticides as an infectious crystallising agent that slowly kills its host by infiltrating its biology and gradually transforming it into an inanimate and yellow crystalline form. It is “much inspired” by J.G Ballard’s The Crystal World.

Bee-Jewelled

Bee-Jewelled was inspired when Park found out that bees, like airborne swarm filter feeders,  concentrate environmental  pollutants,  like pesticides and fungicides.  This makes them hypersensitive to a natural parasite called  Nosema cerenae.

As Park explains: “With a nod to  Ackroyd and Harvey, Roger Hiorns and J.G. Ballard, this work reflects the ability of bees to concentrate environmental chemicals and highlights fears for their extinction.”

Simon Park on his practice:

“I’m not an artist, but a liberal scientist whose work explores the deep connections of the natural world… My goal is simple: to explore the inherent creativity of the natural world and to reveal its subtle, and usually hidden narratives, and above all to reveal its wonder. My hope is that my works will allow the interested observer to perceive biological phenomena that would otherwise be perpetually invisible, so that the hidden machinations of the natural world are brought to light.”

The Lost Pollinator Lizards of Rodrigues – by Matt Stanfield

In 2017 Remembrance Day for Lost Species will focus on pollinators, a broader theme than in some past years. This may be apt given reports that Earth may be on the brink of a full-spectrum ecological collapse unparalleled since the Dinosaur Age came crashing down. In the months leading up to Lost Species Day itself on 30 November, these regular “Lost Species of the Month” posts will commemorate a selection of extinct pollinators.

The notion of a lizard being a pollinator is rather strange. Unlike hummingbirds or bees, these creatures are hardly synonymous with dynamism or industry. An unfair characterisation of reptiles as sluggish, dull and abhorrent may have contributed to the role of certain lizards in pollination going largely overlooked.

Pollinator decline is rightly making headlines, but for some species the decline has already proven terminal. Two such creatures lived on the Indian Ocean island of Rodrigues. This isolated speck of land, along with the other Mascarenes, is often seen as a hotspot for recent island extinctions. However it might better be considered an unusually well-documented example, due to only having been settled during the seventeenth century.

The lost pollinators in question are the Rodrigues day gecko (Phelsuma edwardnewtoni) and the Rodrigues giant day gecko (Phelsuma gigas). Both common names are a little misleading. The Rodrigues day gecko was one of the largest members of its genus and the Rodrigues giant day gecko is thought to have been nocturnal!

Insects and nectar are believed to have comprised the bulk of these species’ diets. In the process of their nectar sipping, it is thought the geckos accumulated pollen on their faces and inadvertently spread it between flowers during their meals. This behaviour has recently been observed in other members of Phelsuma. Interestingly, one genus of Mascarene flowering plants produces coloured nectar, an extremely rare trait amongst plants. This nectar attracts Phelsuma geckos better than standard colourless nectar, suggesting coevolution between these plants and their reptilian pollinators.

Fig.1: Sculpted restoration of a Rodrigues giant day gecko. Image Wikimedia Commons by Abu Shawka

The Rodrigues giant day gecko (P. gigas) was the first of the two to become extinct. It was described in 1708 by François Legaut as being: “of greyish colour, and very ugly: they are as big and long as one’s arm.” In the opinion of this lizard enthusiast, Legaut was wrong to call this impressive-looking animal ugly, but was right to emphasise its size. The Rodrigues giant day gecko was the largest known gecko ever, potentially reaching over half a metre in length.

Like Mauritius and Réunion, Rodrigues was ravaged by European colonial activity. Its forests were burnt down to flush out its giant tortoises and clear land for livestock rearing. Along with habitat loss, Earth’s biggest gecko was dealt a sucker punch with the introduction of rats and cats, who feasted on the lizards and their eggs.

By 1840, Phelsuma gigas was confined to a few offshore islets. On the basis of five living geckos taken from one of these refugia, the species was formally described in 1842 by a French librarian named Liénard. One survived several months in captivity, refusing all food except sweetened water from a spoon. Liénard’s spoon-fed lizard was the last of its kind recorded alive. Nothing but a handful of assorted bones still remains.

 

Fig.2: Museum specimen of the Rodrigues day gecko. Image Wikimedia Commons by Jurriaan Schulman

The Rodrigues day gecko (Phelsuma edwardnewtoni) appears to have hung on a little longer than its larger relative. Legaut again provides the earliest record of these animals, who made quite a favourable impression on him and his companions:

“The palm trees and Latan palms are always laden with lizards about a foot long, the beauty of which is very extraordinary…the colour of each the most lively and bright of any of its kind…They are not mischievous, and so tame, that they often come and eat the melons on our tables, and in our presence, and even in our hands; they serve for prey to some birds. When we beat ‘em down from the trees with a pole, these birds would come and eat them from our hands, tho’ we did our utmost to hinder them; and when we offered to oppose them, they came on still after their prey”

Within two centuries of the publication of this curiously touching tale of island naivety, the Rodrigues day gecko had been eradicated from the main island. Habitat destruction and introduced predators were responsible. By the latter half of the nineteenth century rats were spreading across Rodrigues’ surrounding islets. Two last Phelsuma edwardnewtoni were collected in 1917 and sent to Paris, where they are preserved in alcohol for posterity. The species is thought to have succumbed to rats shortly thereafter. Today Rodrigues has no surviving endemic reptiles.

Elsewhere in the Mascarenes, geckos do continue to pollinate certain plants, particularly Trochetia flowers with their colourful nectar. The blue-tailed day gecko, a diminutive relative of Rodrigues’ lost lizards, still serves as a crucial pollinator of Mauritian Trochetia.

Recently it has been suggested that Gunther’s gecko, another large Mascarene day gecko species, could be introduced onto some of Rodrigues’ now rat-free islets. This rewilding project could serve two useful purposes. First, Gunther’s gecko is endangered, presently confined to a single area of less than two square kilometres. Establishing a second population of this animal could help ensure its survival. Second, Gunther’s gecko is considered an ecologically-comparable species to Rodrigues’ lost geckos. Potentially it could revive vanished interplays between plant and lizard. As with other rewilding proposals, only time will tell whether it will come to fruition.

 

 

 

 

“Biological Annihilation” – by Damian Carrington

A “biological annihilation” of wildlife in recent decades means a sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history is under way and is more severe than previously feared, according to research.

Scientists analysed both common and rare species and found billions of regional or local populations have been lost. They blame human overpopulation and overconsumption for the crisis and warn that it threatens the survival of human civilisation, with just a short window of time in which to act.

The study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, eschews the normally sober tone of scientific papers and calls the massive loss of wildlife a “biological annihilation” that represents a “frightening assault on the foundations of human civilisation”.

Prof Gerardo Ceballos, at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, who led the work, said: “The situation has become so bad it would not be ethical not to use strong language.”

Previous studies have shown species are becoming extinct at a significantly faster rate than for millions of years before, but even so extinctions remain relatively rare giving the impression of a gradual loss of biodiversity. The new work instead takes a broader view, assessing many common species which are losing populations all over the world as their ranges shrink, but remain present elsewhere.

The scientists found that a third of the thousands of species losing populations are not currently considered endangered and that up to 50% of all individual animals have been lost in recent decades. Detailed data is available for land mammals, and almost half of these have lost 80% of their range in the last century. The scientists found billions of populations of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians have been lost all over the planet, leading them to say a sixth mass extinction has already progressed further than was thought.

The scientists conclude: “The resulting biological annihilation obviously will have serious ecological, economic and social consequences. Humanity will eventually pay a very high price for the decimation of the only assemblage of life that we know of in the universe.”

They say, while action to halt the decline remains possible, the prospects do not look good: “All signs point to ever more powerful assaults on biodiversity in the next two decades, painting a dismal picture of the future of life, including human life.”

Wildlife is dying out due to habitat destruction, overhunting, toxic pollution, invasion by alien species and climate change. But the ultimate cause of all of these factors is “human overpopulation and continued population growth, and overconsumption, especially by the rich”, say the scientists, who include Prof Paul Ehrlich, at Stanford University in the US, whose 1968 book The Population Bomb is a seminal, if controversial, work.

“The serious warning in our paper needs to be heeded because civilisation depends utterly on the plants, animals, and microorganisms of Earth that supply it with essential ecosystem services ranging from crop pollination and protection to supplying food from the sea and maintaining a livable climate,” Ehrlich told the Guardian. Other ecosystem services include clean air and water.

“The time to act is very short,” he said. “It will, sadly, take a long time to humanely begin the population shrinkage required if civilisation is to long survive, but much could be done on the consumption front and with ‘band aids’ – wildlife reserves, diversity protection laws – in the meantime.” Ceballos said an international institution was needed to fund global wildlife conservation.

The research analysed data on 27,500 species of land vertebrates from the IUCN and found the ranges of a third have shrunk in recent decades. Many of these are common species and Ceballos gave an example from close to home: “We used to have swallows nesting every year in my home near Mexico city – but for the last 10 years there are none.”

The researchers also point to the “emblematic” case of the lion: “The lion was historically distributed over most of Africa, southern Europe, and the Middle East, all the way to northwestern India. [Now] the vast majority of lion populations are gone.”

Read the full article in the Guardian online.

Deicide on the Long River: The Story of the Baiji – by Matt Stanfield

Baiji Dolphin by Lucy Campbell Baiji by Lucy Campbell – courtesy of the artist

Chinese history stretches back thousands of years, with much of the modern nation’s heartland falling under the control of a single dynasty before the Romans even finished conquering Italy. In the ensuing millennia the Yangtze, Earth’s third-longest river, would become a major focal point of East Asia’s grandest civilisation.

In the days of Imperial China, the waters of what would come to be known as the “Long River” held a multitude of marvels. Amidst the ranks of the Yangtze’s endemic fish species were the high-fin loach, nicknamed an “ugly duckling in reverse” and the mighty Yangtze paddlefish, reaching lengths of over twelve feet. Besides the fish were other giants and oddities, including soft-shelled turtles weighing as much as a lion and diminutive finless porpoises.

Arguably the most celebrated of all the river’s residents was Lipotes vexillifer, the “Goddess of the Yangtze”. Commonly known as the baiji, this species of river dolphin occupies a special place in ancient Chinese mythology. The fable once told of the baiji is infused with human suffering and death, as indeed was these animals’ ultimate fate.

The story goes that a beautiful young girl lived on the banks of the Yangtze with her cruel stepfather. One day, he took the girl onto the river by boat, meaning to sell her at market. En route, he became intoxicated by her beauty, deciding to take advantage of her. The girl freed herself by plunging into the river, whereupon a storm sank her stepfather’s boat. Once the storm passed, a beautiful dolphin was seen swimming and taken to be the incarnation of the girl. The animal was dubbed the Goddess of the Yangtze: a symbol of peace, prosperity and protection.

Painting of a baiji, Geisler et al. via Wikimedia Commons

For millennia, thousands of these blue-and-cream cetaceans swam in the Yangtze beneath the sailboats of traders and fishermen. But nothing lasts forever, and two centuries of bloody upheaval would end Imperial China and the baiji alike. In 1793, a British diplomatic mission to the Chinese Emperor was haughtily dismissed as a rabble of barbarians. However the “barbarians” would return, with a strength born of their Industrial Revolution, sailing thousands of troops up the Yangtze into the heart of China. By the mid-nineteenth century, steam-powered Western gunboats patrolled the Emperor’s greatest waterway.

China’s national humiliation and brutal treatment by the West, and later the Japanese, triggered the overthrow both of the imperial regime and its republican successor. This second Chinese revolution, concluding in 1949, would have grave consequences indeed. Following decades of brutal war, the Communist leader Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China. Mao sought to restore his ravaged homeland’s once paramount standing amongst nations. China would be forever changed.

In 1950, the lower Yangtze held around six thousand baiji, much the same number as when China’s first imperial dynasty was founded. In 1958 Mao initiated China’s “Great Leap Forward”. This attempt to create industrialised socialism in the People’s Republic was a cataclysmic disaster. Perhaps as many as fifty-five million Chinese died in the resulting famine. The Great Leap Forward also proved an ecological catastrophe. A massive nationwide furnace-building drive led to rampant deforestation to provide fuel, which in turn exacerbated desertification. Certain traditions were also denounced, including the venerated status of the baiji.

No longer protected by custom, the dolphins were made horribly vulnerable at a stroke. Against a backdrop of famine, they were hunted for their meat. A grisly cottage industry also emerged, with baiji skin being cut and stitched into handbags and gloves. Whilst the Great Leap Forward only lasted four appalling years, severe damage had been done. The Goddess of the Yangtze was in deep trouble.

China’s rapid population growth after the famine meant ever more mouths to feed. Fishing activity in the baiji’s home waters intensified, with motorised boats dragging thousands of hooks each behind them through the cloudy river. Baiji became entangled in this new fishing apparatus and drowned, with others scythed to death by propellers.

In 1979 China’s government officially declared the dolphins endangered. By now, maybe a tenth of their mid-century population remained. In the following decades, attempts were made to save the baiji, but time was already short and the odds were ever-mounting against the species’ survival.

A surfacing baiji, image public domain

In 2006, a six-week survey of the Yangtze by thirty researchers found no sign of the baiji. They were declared functionally extinct in December that year, since fewer were thought to survive than the continuation of the species required.

Research indicates that the loss of the baiji is of particular significance: it was the sole representative of the Lipotidae, an entire cetacean family. More than twenty million years of unique evolutionary history gave Earth the baiji. We took about one-millionth of that time to drive them to the brink of extinction.

Scientists’ despondency about the baiji is sadly well-placed. Almost a half-billion people inhabit the Yangtze drainage basin. The river itself is astoundingly polluted, fringed by over four hundred-thousand “chemical enterprises”, turning former baiji habitat into what PRC state media call a “pollution belt”. Unsurprisingly, many of the river’s other species are at risk of following the dolphins into oblivion.

The suffering of China’s people in the centuries since a newly-industrialised West first turned its sights on the vast Qing Empire has been mirrored by the suffering of its wildlife and ecosystems. Unfortunately, another sinister innovation of Mao’s now has environmental repercussions far beyond the People’s Republic: namely his promotion of “Traditional Chinese Medicine”. This highly-lucrative field is a now a major driver of species endangerment worldwide.

One poignant example of this endangerment is the vaquita, native to the Gulf of California. This child-sized porpoise may soon vanish due to insatiable Chinese demand for the swim bladders of the totoaba fish who share its habitat. Nearly all Earth’s vaquita have already drowned in the nets of Mexico’s totoaba fishery. It would be a grim irony indeed if two disparate cetacean species were lost in such quick succession, paying the ultimate price for China’s bitter struggle to reclaim its former glory.

 A pair of vaquita, image public domain

Lucy Campbell’s works explore the worlds of lost, disappearing and mythical creatures. Her baiji painting was made as part of a shared project with storyteller Andreas Kornevall  – read Andreas’ version of the ancient baiji myth, illustrated by Lucy, on his website.

Remembrance Day for Lost Species 2017 – Call for participants

Earth is thought to be in the early stages of a Sixth Mass Extinction, caused by the actions of a single species: our own. November 30th is a chance to learn and tell the stories of species and habitats lost to human activity, and to renew commitments to protecting our planet’s biodiversity.

Recent sharp declines in the population of pollinators, on whose environmental contribution so many species rely, have been receiving significant attention. In light of this, the focus of Remembrance Day for Lost Species 2017 will be on pollinators. These are animals which move pollen from the male to the female part of a flower, thus fertilising it. Well-known pollinators include bees, butterflies and moths. Certain birds and mammals are also important pollinators, notably bats and hummingbirds. There are of course many animals besides these which perform this vital ecological function.

Some pollinators such as the small Mauritian flying fox are already extinct at human hands, with swathes of others being critically endangered or feared lost e.g. Franklin’s bumblebee.

Small Mauritian flying fox

The Lost Species Day website will be hosting extinction and biodiversity loss-themed posts in the run-up to Remembrance Day for Lost Species 2017. We seek contributions in any medium, and stories to share online. Extinction-related visual art, creative writing, historical accounts and artefacts are all welcome. These will be shared on our website and social media outlets, in addition to partner projects’ channels.

We also call for artists, companies, schools and communities to hold memorial events around November 30th 2017. These could take the form of processions, “funerals” or participatory events marking the extinction of pollinator species and/or the ongoing threats which human activity poses to surviving pollinators. Alternatively, you can focus on any lost or disappearing species or place which you wish to. The Lost Species Day initiative welcomes all participants, regardless of how they want to acknowledge contemporary extinction and biodiversity loss. If you’re looking for inspiration, our website features examples of some of last year’s events.

Please contact persephone@onca.org.uk with proposals for the website, or at any time to let us know about events you are planning.

Featured image: Bombus by artist Eti Meacock. Photo by Abi Horn