is Forever

A Quest for the Last Known Survivors

I wanted to view Martha in the flesh, so I made a strange pilgrimage to Washington, DC, to visit the last resting place of the best-known endling of the Great Lakes.

I could have gone to Cincinnati, where she died on September 1, 1914, at the age of 29. Instead, I journeyed to see what’s left of her, tucked away in a steel storage locker at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History. For me to see where she’s preserved seemed like a better place to connect with extinction than the zoo where she died, the last known passenger pigeon on earth, the last known specimen of her species – an endling.

woodcut-style artwork of thylacines

Martha arrived at the Smithsonian encased in a block of ice for scientific study. There she was mounted and placed on a small branch now fastened to a block of Styrofoam. The Smithsonian custodians paired her with a male passenger pigeon that died in 1873 in Minnesota. They had no connection with each other during life and were mated only for public display, which hadn’t happened for a long time. Nowadays, Martha and her anonymous pseudo-mate spend virtually all their time in a nondescript locker next to one containing birds Theodore Roosevelt had shot, collected, and studied as a boy. Martha’s organs are preserved separately in fluid. I didn’t ask to see them.

The trip to see Martha was my third endling pilgrimage. Several years earlier, an extinction mission took me to the opposite side of the globe. In Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, I made my way alone on a gray winter day to the ruins of the Beaumaris Zoo, in a park known as Queen’s Domain. It’s the zoo where Benjamin died in 1936. Benjamin (believed to be female, but never mind) was the last known Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine. Well before Benjamin became the final number before zero, her species was diminishing. The Tasmanian Parks & Wildlife Service explains: “The arrival of European settlers marked the start of a tragic period of conflict that led to the thylacine’s extinction. The introduction of sheep in 1824 led to conflict between the settlers and thylacines.” The carnivorous, striped marsupial was hunted to extinction thanks to a misinformed fear that it was decimating the island’s sheep herds. Benjamin, who survived for 22 years beyond Martha’s demise, became Australia’s iconic endling. She died only a few months after the Tasmanian government’s much-belated decision to provide the species legal protection.

photo of a bird in a wooden cageMartha photo courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society

Unlike Martha, Benjamin’s physical remains are long gone. All that makes her doomed existence tangible is a short black-and-white film clip showing the animal pacing in its cage at the zoo.

My second endling pilgrimage had led to a small, dingy museum in the bleak Central Asian city of Nukus, in the far west of the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan. Its endling is mounted in a drab display case: a Caspian tiger that fell to a hunter’s bullet in the 1950s, according to a plaque. Many scientists disagree with the museum’s claim that this particular Caspian tiger was, indeed, the final survivor. Some assert that the last one died in northern Iran, or northeastern Afghanistan, or perhaps elsewhere. But there’s no doubt that today the species is extinct. Unlike Martha and Benjamin, the stuffed tiger wasn’t given a name before its death.

To some people, these journeys of mine could seem macabre, a weird fascination with avoidable-turned-inevitable large-scale deaths. But, like a cemetery visit to read ancient headstones, there are lessons to be found in these markers to the dead. It’s strange to be reminded how easily abundance disappears into nothing. It’s shocking how quickly carelessness (or callousness) can wipe something off the face of the world.

Take Martha – or, rather, her demise.

There were three to five billion (yes, billion) passenger pigeons in North America in the fifteenth century, the Smithsonian says. As recently as the early 1800s, the skies blackened with massive migratory flights between their main nesting areas in the Great Lakes and New York and their wintering sites in the southern United States. One 850-square-mile nesting area in Wisconsin held an estimated 136 million birds.

illustration showing passenger pigeonsEctopistes migratorius

So how did we get from those nearly unimaginable numbers down to Martha? James Dean, a Smithsonian scientist, explains that passenger pigeons were becoming rare by the early 1900s. “One of their downfalls,” Dean says, “was their social structure. They had to be in huge colonies.” After the Civil War, professional hunters were mostly to blame, blasting away with shotguns for hour after hour and massacring massive quantities of the birds to sell for meat, sometimes as cheaply as 50 cents a dozen.

In 1878, for example, 50,000 a day were shot near Petoskey, Michigan. Let that sink in: 50,000 a day. Day after day. For almost five months. Add to such slaughter the clearing (for timber and for farmland) of the hardwood forests that passenger pigeons lived in, and there’s a recipe for extinction. Or, in the words of the Smithsonian, “civilization prevailed.”

Now scientists warn that civilization could well prevail again, eliminating species after species. The Switzerland-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which maintains the depressingly long “Red List of Threatened Species,” offers a grim forecast for the future. The IUCN estimates that a quarter of land mammal species, a third of marine mammal species, and a third of amphibian species face extinction in the foreseeable future, meaning the next 10 to 100 years, depending on the life of a species’ generations. The prediction for birds is also dark. One in eight is considered endangered.

There are many culprits, including the mega-threats of climate change, human population growth, and habitat destruction and fragmentation. Plus the well known minor-key dangers: poaching for meat or parts, overhunting or overfishing, air and water pollution, the arrival of invasive species, dams, and highway projects. The current species extinction rate is 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than it would be naturally, according to the IUCN.

But I have trouble wrapping my mind around the mega-threats and the huge numbers of species on the brink. The figures are simply too large. They make the situation seem inevitable, uncontrollable, and impersonal. There is none of the stark clarity of zero – the reminder that extinction is forever.

To some people, these journeys of mine could seem macabre, a weird fascination with avoidable-turned-inevitable large-scale deaths. But, like a cemetery visit to read ancient headstones, there are lessons to be found in these markers to the dead.

So I undertake my endling pilgrimages hoping the visits will make the reality of extinction tangible. I’m not one to anthropomorphize, so I can’t pretend any of these three endlings comprehended their impending doom, let alone that of their species. They weren’t like Ishi – the last survivor of California’s Yahi tribe, who spent many of his years housed at the University of California, a living museum relic who died two years after Martha. He at least knew his fate.

Still, I wonder whether Benjamin and Martha experienced a loneliness in their final years, an instinctual confusion over why there was nothing else like them. When I see the footage of Benjamin pacing her cage, watch Martha being taken out of her Smithsonian drawer, or imagine the unnamed Caspian tiger on its final, fatal foray for prey, their stories take on a drama that makes their disappearance more comprehensible. The abstract becomes personal and allows me to see that these animals’ fates were not inevitable. Their endings had human authorship.

In other words, they died because we killed them. Intentional human actions played a decisive role in their devastation. That’s most evident with the thylacine because Tasmanian farmers set out to wipe the species from its last toehold on the planet – and so they did. In comparison, the hunters who swept the passenger pigeon from the skies and the Caspian tiger from the ground probably didn’t hope to eliminate those species. To mix animal metaphors, that would be killing the goose that lays their golden egg. Nevertheless, that was the effect of their actions.

In those and similar cases, extinction resulted from a combination of deliberate actions – targeting a species literally and figuratively – and natural forces. Thus North America’s Carolina parakeet, classified as extinct in 1939, fell victim to the overlapping forces of demand for its colorful feathers for women’s hats, deforestation, and farmers’ wrongful perception that it was a pest. The brilliant plumage of Australia’s paradise parrot, also in high demand for hats, proved to be that species’ death sentence; its final confirmed sighting came in 1927. The flightless dodo, last seen on the African island of Mauritius in the late 1600s, disappeared due to both hunting for food by visiting sailors and to depredations by invasive dogs, cats, monkeys, and swine that arrived on the island by ship.

woodcut of a softshell turtleRafetus swinhoei

Similarly, today’s poachers and illegal traffickers in bears – valued for the supposed medicinal value of their bile – probably don’t want to drive bears to extinction. After all, it would be bad for business. Regardless of intentions, however, a May 2011 study by TRAFFIC, a joint effort of the IUCN and the World Wildlife Fund, warns that such endeavors continue “unabated across Asia on a large scale ” and “must be reduced if bear conservation efforts are to succeed.” The very next month, Russian officials seized the fruits of a major wildlife smuggling operation, including 1,041 bear paws, 26 elk lips, and lynx fur.

Or consider the tale of the last four known surviving Yangtze giant soft-shell turtles, a story suggesting that we humans may have gotten a little smarter in conserving species, but not really any wiser.

More than a half-century ago, a traveling circus sold a female to a zoo in Changsha, China, where it lived alone and undisturbed in a pond for decades. Now she and a male – both in their 80s or 90s – are at a zoo in Suzhou where scientists have been trying (unsuccessfully) to get them to breed. At one time, the zoo in Suzhou had more than eight of the huge turtles, but some washed away during flooding and one died after being struck in the head by a rock. The female now at Suzhou has been laying eggs – a good sign. But the eggs have weak shells due to insufficient calcium in her diet, and they show only a minor degree of embryonic development. Each breeding season, scientists hope for a clutch of viable eggs.

In most cases, we’re unlikely to even know the endling, let alone name it. The species simply disappears, anonymously. Here one day. Gone the next.

There are only two other Yangtze giant soft-shells turtles. They are both in Vietnam, but at separate locations. According to Dr. Peter Pritchard, founder of Florida’s Chelonian Research Institute and an internationally known authority on turtles, anecdotal reports suggest “possibly some residual individuals in Vietnamese waters.” The sightings are like witnessing extinction in slow motion. “The old fishermen have lots of stories [of turtles],” Pritchard says. “The young fishermen have few stories.”

Captive breeding efforts are essential, especially in desperate situations like that involving the turtles, and there’s hope that such programs will rescue some species before all that remains is an endling unable to reproduce. There have been important successes with captive breeding: the black-footed ferret, the California condor, and the Arabian oryx among them. Realistically, though, such programs can’t accommodate hundreds of at-risk species. And even when successful, they’re complicated by questions. What to do with the offspring? Will they and their descendants be distributed to zoos and kept in captivity forever? Can they safely be released and survive in the wild? And – perhaps the most important – what if their new human neighbors object to their presence?

old newspaper photo of a tigerPanthera tigris virgata

Often, the last remaining survivors are given names by the humans who are trying to rehabilitate their species. In 2010, scientists bestowed the name Flex on a 13-year-old western gray whale when they tagged him off Russia’s Pacific coast; he’s among only about 136 members of that critically endangered species. A northern bald ibis, the Middle East’s most critically endangered bird species, was named Julia when she was tagged in 2009. Julia was shot while migrating across northern Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps it’s foolish to name individual members of near-gone species. Sentimentality won’t save them. But the naming serves a purpose: It is a way for many of us to identify with the crisis of extinction, just as my pilgrimage to Martha was a way for me to memorialize, and to understand, the demise of the passenger pigeon.

Of course, most endlings won’t be so “lucky.” They won’t get a name, or even a numbered box in a museum, or a plaque at a zoo. In most cases, we’re unlikely to even know the endling, let alone name it. The species simply disappears, anonymously. Here one day. Gone the next. Then another disappears. Then another.

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