How do you say goodbye?
How long is 40 years?
We became a state in 1846. Through habitat loss and active hunting, we eliminated the black bear within our borders by 1859. A year later, the mountain lion vanished. Bison and elk both disappeared from the state in 1870 and 1871, respectively. Records of gray wolves ended in 1885.
Forty years and all our large wildlife is gone. Is 40 years a long time?
We lost smaller species as well. The passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet, for example, not only vanished here, but everywhere else as well. The last individuals of both species died early in the 1900s in the Cincinnati Zoo.
During Martha’s and Inca’s lives (last pigeon and parakeet, respectively), the main goal of zoos was entertainment, showing off animals the public normally would not see. Conservation of species didn’t come about till much later. Thus, no one ever contemplated the idea of breeding the disappearing birds.
Zoos, now, throughout the world, help to research, educate, breed, and even re-introduce endangered and threatened species. Sometimes I feel visiting a zoo is like seeing the tip of an iceberg – all the real work going on is behind-the-scenes.
However, sometimes all this work fails. Habitat loss, political situations, or other factors prevent a re-introduction. Sometimes we just can’t learn enough to maintain the species.
Just days ago, we lost a subspecies of the Galapagos giant tortoise. Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island tortoise, died at over 100 years of age. Reproduction efforts to help save the subspecies or even save the genes through breeding with other subspecies were unsuccessful.
Successful breeding of northern white rhinos have also met with little success. Debate has recently ensued over whether the northern white is a subspecies or a separate one from the southern white. In reality, the matter is practically irrelevant: you can almost count on one hand the number of northern whites that are left. As in, the total worldwide population. Seven. That’s it.
Now, I am not a rhino person. It’s not an animal I look for at zoos. I don’t even think rhinos are particularly cool looking; they are just not my thing.
However, something hit hard within me during a recent tour of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. We were on a tram tour, seeing several African and other species in extra-large enclosures. Most of the animals were part of the zoo’s conservation plan. We had driven past another species of rhino (there are five) and her baby and then, in another pen, her older son (rhinos, particularly males, being more solitary animals).
Then came Nola, right next to the fence, right next to the tram road.
Her large horn curved outward, a factor of living in captivity, and requiring periodic trimming. She was impressively large and gray (the “white” in the name referring to a mistranslation. Black rhinos are also gray and may have been so named to separate them from the white species).
And then the tour guide mentioned how great it was we got to see Nola up close. With such few animals left, and the ones left essentially past reproduction age, we were looking at an extinction that will happen in our lifetime. Not if. No qualifying statement. No look at all our conservation efforts that could possibly bring them back from the brink.
No, the animal was already over the brink. Nola was just a remnant. A leftover. A survivor. But a period at the end of the northern white rhino story. After her, and the few others (none wild), there will be no more story. Nothing to write, to say.
Because when you know you have driven a species to extinction... when you know that it was very direct human actions that brought the killing blow... when you know you did not care enough to make a difference... well, then, what else can be said?
“I’m sorry” just is not enough. And cannot begin to explain a sense of failure.
In the end, does it matter? We here in Iowa already lost all our large wildlife. That’s just the way life on earth is now. Am I alone in feeling we are poorer for it?
How long is 40 years?
Strangely enough, it’s also the average life span of a rhino.