A significant 100th anniversary passed last week with next to no comment in the Australian media — the death of Martha, the last passenger pigeon, who died on the concrete floor of her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo, September 1, 1914.
The number of passenger pigeons alive at the time of the European colonisation of North America was staggering — at least 5 billion, likely the most numerous bird on the planet. Early accounts from multiple, reliable sources recall flocks of passengers darkening the sky for two to three days as they flew overhead. Even during the 1850s when French traveller Benedict-Henry Revoil warned that the pigeons would “simply end by disappearing”, measures to protect against the profligate slaughter of birds were deemed unnecessary as nesting events of millions of birds in vast colonies were still commonplace.
Yet perhaps by this point it may have already been too late for the passenger pigeon, passing a threshold from which such a communal species could never recover. The industrial-scale massacres reached a peak in the 1870s, when hundreds of people were employed to slay birds at nesting sites, shipping them out on the newly developed railway network ensuring the carcasses could be transported to the major urban markets without spoiling.
Even more of a blow to passenger pigeons was the wholesale clearance of the habitat that sustained such huge numbers — vast swathes of beech, oak and chestnut forest. By the mid-1880s the pigeons were deemed a rarity, with the last confirmed wild bird being shot in 1900. So much for the rationality of the market — as passenger numbers plummeted, their value rose, and the rush to exploit this natural commodity became even more frenzied.
The passing of Martha resonates so powerfully a century later because her story is both enormous in scale yet also exceptionally intimate. To lose such a phenomenally numerous species within plain sight of one of the most prosperous nations on earth was shocking. Yet, because we are social creatures, it is that notion of Martha being so existentially alone that strikes a chord deep within us.
It seems that conservation stories only really grip our imagination when the species concerned is down to so few individuals that we are able to give them unique names. The majority of Tasmanian tigers went unmourned, but the image of Benjamin, the last of his kind, pacing his cage in the 1930s is extremely powerful. Only this year Australia lost another species forever — the Christmas Island forest skink — when the last of that species died in captivity. The scientists who cared for it called it “Gump”.
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Perhaps too, it is only at this terminal stage that we can feel like we can do something concrete to save them. It is conceptually easier to rescue an individual rather than come to the aid of something that is dropping out of an entire landscape. If only we had been able to keep the last passenger pigeons alive long enough, we think rather smugly to ourselves, we would be able to do something about the threats to their existence.
“While some ecological problems may appear intractable, we know that modern conservation biology can prevent extinctions … the key is to not wait until the last minute …”
Natural history is littered with these “what if” moments.
If only the captain of the SS Makambo had kept it from running aground on Lord Howe Island in 1918, allowing rats to invade the island killing five unique birds found only on the island. The devastation so rapid that within two years a local naturalist wrote, “the quiet of death reigns where all was melody”.
If only the lighthouse keeper on New Zealand’s Stephens Island hadn’t been fond of cats. Legend has it that “Tibbles” was solely responsible for the death of the last Stephens Island wrens on the planet. (There may have been some other felines involved, but Tibbles remains the prime suspect.)
If only the great auk had been able to fly. It could have nested on cliff faces that were inaccessible to rapacious sailors and feather-down collectors. If only its last, safe breeding island off the south coast of Iceland hadn’t been sunk in a volcanic explosion in 1830. If only the mania for obtaining specimens for scientific collections hadn’t been so strong. If only the collectors sent to take what turned out be the last pair of great auks had missed them. If only that pair’s solitary egg weren’t crushed under the boot of one of the collectors.
It is easy in hindsight to feel sanctimonious about species that have been lost. But as we face a massive extinction crisis, will we able to stand proud and say to future generations that we are doing everything we can to stop the animals we love from dropping out of existence?
While some ecological problems may appear intractable, we know that modern conservation biology can prevent extinctions. The whooping crane, black robin and American bison were all brought back from the brink. But this is expensive, and it only works when there is a collective will — from government, scientists and the community. In a climate where Tasmanian forest agreements are being torn up and the very basis of evidence-based science is ignored and ridiculed, the likelihood of us being able to prevent species from hurtling towards the same fate as Martha seem depressingly remote.
The key is to not wait until the last minute, when there are no Arthurs left to pair up with the Marthas. But there is a perversity in human nature that we will not act until the crisis is upon us — and by the time we have so few of a species left that we can give them individual names such as Martha or Gump, it is most likely too late to save them.
It seems to me that we will only be able to claim success in the fight against extinction when, on the 200th anniversary of Martha’s death, our grandchildren’s children will not know the name of any individual orange-bellied parrots or Sumatran tigers or any other threatened species because they will be too numerous to bother naming.