Monday, November 19, 2012

The Age of Endlings.

Jay Mazoomdaar

We can only imagine the loneliness of the last of a species. But can we be immune to the consequence of the loss?
Jay Mazoomdaar
Independent Journalist
Living on the edge Few, if any, pure Asiatic wild buffalo survive in the wild
Photo: Getty Images
REMEMBER UNCAS in The Last of The Mohicans? His death marked the end of a tribe on which James Cooper developed his theme of great loss. The Mohicans were an imaginary tribe based on the Mohegans and Mahicans who still survive in two autonomous reservations of the US. But dozens of plant and animal species go extinct every day. Few are recorded, even noticed. The last of a species — the endling — is identified in still fewer cases.
Much has been written about Truganini, the last surviving Tasmanian Aboriginal, whose tribe was exterminated by the Europeans who colonised Australia at the end of the 18th century. Truganini became an endling in 1874, three years before her lonely death. Around the same time, another nameless endling passed away thousands of miles away. But if you never heard of the Quagga, it is not your fault.
Final countdown The last Tasmanian tiger in the Hobart zoo

Imagine a half-zebra with the stripes in the front fading in the middle to disappear into a plain brown coat in the rear. Once abundant in the grassland of South Africa, the Quagga was hunted to extinction for its hide and meat nearly 130 years ago. By the 1870s, the wild stock disappeared and zoo specimens became rare. The Quagga endling died at Amsterdam’s Artis Royal Zoo in 1883.
Martha the pigeon and Incas the parakeet died in the Cincinnati zoo in 1914 and 1918 respectively. Martha’s death marked the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, a species that crowded the continent in billions till the new world was discovered. Incas was the last Carolina Parakeet, North America’s only parrot species.
The Heath Hen, a majestic grouse and a variant of the Greater Prairie Chicken, was nearly extirpated due to poaching by the end of the 19th century. The endling — named Booming Ben — lived alone for four years in a small Massachusetts island called Martha’s Vineyard until a forest fire killed it in 1932.
The kangaroo had a cousin that resembled a wolf. The Tasmanian tiger, the largest marsupial (animals who keep the newborn in a pouch) carnivore of our time, was killed as a vermin and vanished from the wild by 1930. Benjamin, the endling of undermined sex, died in the Hobart zoo in 1936.
The latest in the list of known endlings was Lonesome George, a male Pinta Island tortoise. Rescued to the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galápagos, the giant spent four lonely decades in captivity before dying this June. While endlings of less-evolved life forms may not feel as much, did Benjamin or George realise they hadn’t seen anything quite like them for a really long time?
Boa knew that absolute loneliness. And she sang to herself to dispel it, in a language that had no more speakers left in the Bo people, one of the 10 Great Andamanese tribes. With Boa, died her language and the tribe in 2010. A few months earlier, another ancient language of the archipelago — Khora — had died with Boa’s neighbour Boro. In line are the 50-odd remaining members of the other Great Andamanese clans and only two surviving languages.
Boa’s story was written by linguist Anvita Abbi who knew the octogenarian in her final years. The only endling I came across may not qualify as one, but she suffered the same fate. Rajasthan’s Bharatpur did not have any tiger since the last one was shot in 1962. But in 1999, a barely-adult Ranthambhore tigress wandered out, followed the course of the Gambhir river and landed up in the wetlands of Ghana.
Final countdown Booming Ben, the last heath hen; a captive Quagga female in London zoo in 1870; the last four Tasmanian Aborigines, Truganini is at the extreme right
The tigress settled down among ample prey in the grassland and, thanks to the then conservator of Bharatpur Shruti Sharma, was protected from poachers who would soon butcher the big cats of Sariska and Ranthambhore. Unusually reclusive, she was in her prime when her remains were found in the summer of 2005. For six long years, she did not have a partner or a competitor. She still sprayed to mark her territory.
Tigers continue to flourish in many pocket reserves. The Asiatic cheetah, though, went extinct in India with the last three gunned down by a maharaja one night in 1947 under the glare of his royal vehicle that blinded the animals. While experts plot to fly in the African variety, the populations of several other species — the great Indian bustard, Jerdon’s courser, gharial, hangul, Nilgiri tahr, river dolphin, dugong and numerous amphibians — have dwindled below the critical level since.
The most imminent threat of extinction, however, is facing the Asiatic wild buffalo of which a handful remain in the wild. While the official count stands at 2,900, more than 98 percent of the population is confined to the Northeast where they routinely breed with the domestic ones. The only other population is in central India where their numbers may not add up to 40. In the absence of rigorous genetic verification, there is no certainty how many of them are purebred.
The small populations in Indravati and Pamed remain unprotected as the administration has little access to the insurgency-ridden forests. Chhattisgarh’s Udanti now has eight animals after Asha, the lone, diminutive female, gave birth to a calf in 2009 in captivity. While she is encumbered again, the bulls in the wild have no option but to woo the domestic females on the outskirts of the sanctuary.
ONCE DEAD, species cannot be recovered. Theoretically, breeding back is possible by proper selection if a very closely related species is found. Since 1987, the Quagga project has been trying to recreate the species from the plains zebra, but so far it has succeeded in partially retrieving only the genes responsible for the unique stripe pattern. In India, repeated claims of cloning the extinct cheetah have remained on paper since 2000.
The wild buffalo is the ancestor of the domestic variety and its survival is the only insurance against fatal weakening of the domestic gene. The government, the court and NGOs have repeatedly committed to saving this majestic species that weighs 900-1,500 kg with horns spreading up to 2 metres. But the executing agency, the Forest Department, is not even confident about the species’ identity.
The eight wild buffaloes of Udanti are routinely referred to as bison (or gaur) by the forest staff. In Karnataka, when the government decided to set up a breeding centre for the infinitely less-endangered bison last month, top zoo and forest officials told the media that the facility was meant for wild buffaloes, a species absent in the state.
Once she became an endling, Truganini had a prophecy. “I know that when I die, the museum wants my body,” she told a priest. After her burial, Truganini’s body was exhumed and put on public display at the Tasmanian Museum during 1904-47. But having accelerated the natural extinction rate at least by a 1,000 times, we may have already run out of space in that gallery. Anyway, there will be no one to preserve the endling species of the earth.
Jay Mazoomdaar is an Independent Journalist. 

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