Wildlife Week: Are We Fonder Of Extinct Species Than Extant Ones?
If you have walked in a forest or park, you may have heard a sharp tapping noise. It sounds like someone hammering a nail on wood. You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a carpenter at a construction site. But this is often a non-human sound – a woodpecker tapping neatly on the trunk of a tree to excavate insects. The woodpecker is a unique bird often credited with saving living trees from insect pests; it is also a bird that has evolved alongside large trees.
Now, the United States has officially declared the extinction of the Ivory-billed woodpecker, one of the world’s largest woodpeckers. For birdwatchers, this information is old. At least for my lifetime, the Ivory-billed has been extinct. The last sighting was reported in 1944.
So why does it take so long to declare extinction? Perhaps it is because we don’t want to admit that a species is gone forever, and the last of its name snuffed out. The excitement of finding a rare or extinct species spurs on enthusiasts (and can keep tourism going). For example, the Pink-headed duck was a large duck that lived in Northern India and Myanmar. It had a nude-pink head, and preferred to live in swamps. It hasn’t been seen for decades and is probably gone forever, but the hope for its resurfacing is still strong. In official lists, it comes up as ‘critically endangered’ rather than extinct.
I also suspect we view extinct species with more fondness than we view extant (actually living) ones. For instance, a startup biotech company has recently announced it will create a version of the long-dead woolly mammoth – by mixing mammoth genes with those of the Asian elephant. It’s important to note that though Asian elephants are often looked at with affection, they are not doing well. Certainly, they don’t count enough for policymakers to spare their habitats – the central government wants to mine coal in Chhattisgarh’s Hasdeo Arand, and Chhattisgarh has been dilly-dallying on finalizing Lemru elephant reserve in the area. In Odisha, the National Green Tribunal has had to direct the state to conserve elephant corridors, though the demand has been pending for decades by conservationists.
Extinct beasts find a place with things like black-and-white film songs our parents used to hum, or the memories of our childhood days—languorous, tender, but never to return—because we, and the world, have moved on.
Yet, if we can feel excoriating mourning at the permanent loss of an animal, perhaps we can also find it in us to appreciate what still lives around us. The post-monsoon season is a great time to do so.
Find a seasonal stream near you, and discover the life that flourishes at this time, in verdant places that rainwater touches. In the wet mud near a waterbody, butterflies will be sipping the mud for nutrients. Wildflowers and grasses will be blooming, and dragonflies will be darting in the sky, often filling the stomachs of sharp-eyed birds that look forward to autumn.
In Nagaland this year, I found scores of butterflies, giddy on the warm, wet soil, and huddling together over puddles of water. There was the red, black, and white Mormon butterfly, the large burnt-orange Cruiser butterfly, and the Nawab butterfly, which has an unforgettable sea-green flourish on its dark body.
Butterflies hover in wet patches and warm ground so much they often get crushed by vehicles.
In Delhi, barks of trees have little forests of fungus and moss growing on them. In West Bengal, rainwater has helped saplings take root in unexpected places and the grass of Saccharum is alive with their feathery white blooms.
Though we lost much, our energy is better spent in saving what remains rather than entering an ostensible analysis paralysis. Species that exist today need their habitat saved. If this means saying no to dirty coal—which fells old-growth forests supporting both woodpeckers and elephants—then this is a price we should be willing to pay. Keeping living forests standing should spur entrepreneurship in better energy systems that don’t leave the world more polluted and more animals closer to forever goodbyes.
Recent moves by India showcase some degree of political intent against extinction, though these events have also been a huge political spectacle. Last month, the Assam government burned about 2,500 rhinoceros horns, in a message to countries that want to ‘sustainably’ trade rhino horns – an illegal commodity that at one time brought the Indian rhino close to extinction. India has declared that it will be part of at least one species de-extinction—that of the Cheetah. While the Indian cheetah is lost forever to us (extinct since the 1950s due to hunting), African cheetahs will be flown into Madhya Pradesh as early as November this year for the start of a new de-extinction that crosses the bridge between action plans for living animals and mourning dead ones.
This is a good time for us to remember though, that not all species need this level of political and nationalistic fanfare. Just standing up to protect wild habitat, consistently but surely, should be the moral compass for us all.
Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist. She is the author of ‘Wild and Wilful - Tales of 15 iconic Indian species’ (HarperCollins India).
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.