It’s heartbreaking and I stared at it a long time. It’s one of the only photos ever taken of the ‘O’u, a gorgeous little yellow-headed bird found in the Hawaiian islands.
As Erroll Fuller tells us in his exceptional book, Lost Animals, published by Princeton University Press, “During the 20th Century, ‘O’u populations plummeted. By the 1970s the species was almost extinct, with just a few surviving pockets. One of the last reasonably stable colonies lived on the slopes of the volcano, Mauna Loa. During 1984 a lava flow demolished the habitat.”
Lest you think extinctions are ancient history, we lost many of the animals in Fuller’s book on our watch.
I turned the pages of Fuller’s book slowly, pondering each of the 28 animals profiled. On page 134, a darling Bachman’s Warbler stares at me in a fuzzy photo taken by Robert Barber on March 30, 1977, in Florida. It may have been the last of its species.
Fuller obviously scoured the world for these rare photos, presented as is, without enhancement. Because many are unclear, the book includes beautiful paintings of the animals in the appendix. But it’s the photos – and the stories of each animal – that caused me to read this book cover to cover three times – and stare longingly at each photo.
Some of these animals are famous: Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, and Doodles, one of the last Carolina Parakeets. You know about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. But have you ever heard of the Imperial Woodpecker, the world’s largest woodpecker? You can see it in Lost Animals, the last ever photographed, the photo taken by William Rhein in 1956 in Mexico.
Some of the mammals are particularly intriguing, such as the Quagga (good news, there are five known photos of this funny colored zebra), and the Schomburgk’s Deer, shown in a photograph taken in 1911 at the Berlin zoo. It was first described in 1863 by the British consul in Bangkok, where it inhabited swampy plains.
Well, what happened to these animals? The answer is more complex than you might think.
Here’s what Fuller reports about the Schomburgk’s Deer: “Standing around a metre (3.5 feet) high at the shoulder, with rich chocolate-brown coloring and spectacular antlers, they made an attractive target for hunters. During times of flooding the small herds in which the animals generally lived were often forced to crowd onto higher ground and these high points sometimes became ‘islands’ that could easily be surrounded by humans with guns or other weapons.
“The inevitable massacres followed. However, it was probably not this that caused the species extinction. Increasingly large-scale production of rice led to the destruction of the very areas that the deer inhabited, and the species became rare as the 19th century passed into the 20th. As far as is known, the animals were extinct in the wild by the early 1930s.”
While some might like to point the finger at hunters or habitat destroyers for the loss of these animals, the causes of their demise are often complex. Consider Fuller’s report on the very first species in the book, the Atitlan Giant Grebe.
“Sometimes the extinction of a species can be traced back to a single cause. More often there are a number of contributory factors. But the case of the Giant Grebe of Lake Atitlan has everything: murder, habitat destruction, political interference, the introduction of an alien species, dilution of the bloodstock by hybridization, the effects of tourism, pollution, civil war, and an earthquake.” Wow!
Fuller explains the haunting power of the photos in his book, despite the fact that many are of poor quality, taken in difficult circumstances, and showing little detail, “It seems that a photograph of something lost or gone has a power all of its own, even though it may be tantalizingly inadequate.”
In some of the photos, he noted, the animals “are close enough to touch – almost, but not quite.”
And not ever again.