It’s no secret that the natural environment is slowly eroding because of the continuously evolving modern world where rapid consumerism has long led to various natural catastrophes. The polar caps are melting, while massive fires have been destroying forests from Indonesia to the Amazon. And then there are also the overhunting of wild animals, often times for the stupidest reasons like how the tiger’s bone wine is claimed to contain health benefits like strengthening bones and joints. As if modern medicine can’t address such health issues.
Demands and selfish reasons such as this is one of the biggest contributors to animal extinction. As we sleep comfortably in our luxurious hilltop condo, thousands of species lose their habitat, which then disrupts the food chain. With no habitat and food, this is when they start dying.
While the idea of conservation is slowly gaining attention, a number of animals have gone extinct during our lifetime.
It’s truly unfortunate when the planet lost these animal species, but thankfully in recent years, several of these extinct species were found again. Although critically endangered, at least they’re back from the dead so we can focus on conservation. Let’s have a look at some of the survivors!
1. Borneo Pygmy Elephant
These pygmy elephants were believed to have been native to Java island, but became extinct in their homeland due to excessive hunting in the 1800s, after the Europeans arrived in Southeast Asia. However, the culture of royal gifts between rulers of Southeast Asian monarchies became the biggest saviour for this species. As elephants were shipped as gifts all across the region, they also found a new home.
Scientists believe that 1,000 pygmy elephants in the wild (mostly found in Sabah) may have been the descendants of the Javan elephant race accidentally saved by the Sultan of Sulu. Centuries ago, when the Sultan had brought the elephants all the way to Borneo from Java, he probably never expected to save an entire species from extinction.
A DNA testing by Columbia University and WWF in 2003 ruled out the possibility that the Borneo elephants were from Sumatra or mainland Asia, where the other Asian subspecies are found, leaving either Borneo or Java as the most probable source. Satellite tracking showed the herd prefers lowland habitat. With the increasing timber, rubber and oil palm plantations in the Bornean jungles, conservation efforts should be a priority to increase the population of these pygmy elephants.
2. Fernandina Giant Tortoise
The last time a confirmed sighting of Fernandina giant tortoise was registered, it was in 1906. It wasn’t until 17 February 2019 when Washington Tapia, the director of nonprofit Galapagos Conservancy’s Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative, found a female Fernandina giant tortoise on its namesake island in the Galapagos.
The female tortoise, thought to be roughly 100 years old, was taken by the team to a breeding centre on Santa Cruz Island. With giant tortoises living up to 200 years, there’s hope she can help her species recover and return them to their natural habitat.
This isn’t the first time conservation and breeding efforts were made to bring a critically endangered population of Galapagos tortoises back to the islands. It was reported that a species from Espanola Island was down to 14 tortoises when breeding efforts began. Now, the population has reached over 1,000. Meanwhile, the search expedition is expected to continue since the discovery.
3. Australian Night Parrot
Last seen alive in Western Australia in 1912, the Night Parrot, or Pezoporus occidentalis, was believed to be extinct until two dead specimens were found in Queensland in 1990 and 2006 after being struck by a car.
In 2013, naturalist John Young discovered the bird in western Queensland and managed to take a few photos and even a video footage of the species. Conservation efforts have started since the discovery but because the bird is so elusive, researchers still haven’t been able to find the exact location of the night parrot. Although Young’s discovery was initially confirmed, it was reported in April this year that an independent panel of experts convened by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy believe that Young may have fabricated just about everything he reported about new populations and nesting sites of the birds over the years. So, other than the footage he managed to get, the population is the night parrot remains unknown to this day.
4. Takahe bird
The flightless Takahe bird was thought to have been extinct in 1898 due to predators, overhunting and habitat destruction. But unlike the dodo in Mauritius, this New Zealand native did make a comeback. In 1948, a local doctor Geoffrey Orbell rediscovered the bird high in the remote Murchison Mountains, within the Fiordland National Park in South Island, New Zealand.
Upon discovery, conservation efforts began immediately. Until the 1980s, the takahe were confined in the wild to the Murchison Mountains. As of October 2017, the population grew to 347 individuals (still critically low, but better than extinct). They have since been translocated to seven islands and several mainland sites, making them more accessible to visitors.
Takahe is the largest living rail in the world. Although rare, it’s hard to miss this bird because of its unique features – deep blue head, neck and underparts, olive green on the wings and back, and a white undertail. Being flightless, they only use their wings as display during courtship or as a show of aggression.
5. New Zealand Storm Petrel
Despite being in the same seabird family as the massive albatross whose wingspan reaches over three metres, the New Zealand storm petrel is one of the smallest seabirds species, weighing just 35 grammes. The species was thought to be extinct in 1850, until the first possible rediscovery was reported in 2003 where an alleged storm petrel was spotted off the coast of the North Island.
However, the photo was dubbed too blurry to be used as evidence. It wasn’t until 17 November 2013 when two British men Bryan Thomas, a bird photographer, and Bob Flood, a writer, spotted the storm petrel a short distance off Little Barrier Island near Auckland.
While on the boat, they spotted up to 30 petrels with distinct features that separate them from other seabirds family – white underparts with a black streak, and feet that project further back than the tail. The breeding sites were later discovered by researchers on Little Barrier Island. Because the storm petrel spends most of its life at sea, more efforts are required to study this bird species.
6. Aldabra Rail
The de-extinction story of flightless Aldabra rail is perhaps the coolest one we’ve come across so far. A study published on the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society on May 2019 found that Aldabra rail has been coming back from extinction multiple times for the last 136,000 years.
Based on collected sediments from the Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean, the study showed that the island has been completely submerged multiple times, wiping out all species inhabiting it. Every time, every species on the island went extinct — all but the Aldabra rail which continue to return, time and again.
When sea levels fell again a few thousand years later, fossils show that the species re-colonised itself by a member of the rail family likely from Madagascar, once again losing the ability to fly due to an absence of predators on the island. Today, the Aldabra rail stands as the last surviving species of flightless bird in the Indian Ocean.
7. Venomous Cuban Solenodon
The Cuban-native Solenodon possesses a unique trait where it injects venomous saliva through its teeth into its prey. Sounds scary, but this 30-centimetre-long shrew-like creature isn’t tough enough to protect itselfagainst bigger predators because of its slow pace.
When chased, it would simply stop and hide its heads – making it an easy picking for predators like cats, dogs and even black rats. In the 1970s, people believed the species had gone extinct, until several individuals were found in Cuba between 1974 and 1975. Finding them is still a rare feat today with only a handful of them found and studied every year.
8. Nelson’s Small Eared Shrew
Mostly found in Mexico, Nelson’s Small Eared Shrew used to reside on the San Martín Tuxtla volcano in Veracruz, Mexico. When the now-extinct volcano last erupted in 1793, it destroyed the vegetation around it. The shrew survived the eruption but its last sighting was in 1894.
Fast forward to 2003, researchers Fernando Cervantes and La´zaro Guevara from National Autonomous University of Mexico rediscovered three individuals of the said species. Despite the discovery, the area is under threat because of logging, cattle grazing, induced fires and agriculture. Just like the location which they were found, this shrew’s diet is believed to be insects and their habitat covers tropical forest and areas filled with layers of volcanic sand and ashes.
9. New Guinea Wild Dog
This is the rarest dog species in the world today. New Guinea is already one of the most remote and inhospitable places on earth, so you can bet you won’t be able to find this breed even at the fanciest dog exhibitions.
This species was feared extinct decades ago until an expedition in 2016 found and photographed a pack of 15 individuals comprising males, females and pups. These wild dogs were seen wandering the dense forests of the New Guinea highlands, specifically Puncak Jaya, about 14,000 feet above sea level, living far from human contact.
DNA analysis of faecal samples have confirmed their relationship to Australian dingos and New Guinea singing dogs, which is the captive-bred variants of the New Guinea highland wild dog. Believed to have inhabited the New Guinea island at least 5,500 years ago, the wild highland dogs were used by the native people for hunting.
The reason why this fish looks intimidating is because it had been around since the age of the dinosaurs! Coelacanth (pronounced seel-a-canth), was believed to have been extinct 65 million years ago.
However, an expedition off the coast of South Africa in 1938 led to the discovery of this species. They were believed to have gone through evolutionary transitional species between fish and tetrapods (four-legged creatures). Coelacanth’s preferred habitat lies in deep water caves, largely out of sight. Only 500 are alive today.
11. Omura’s Whale
The Omura’s whale, or Balaenoptera omurai, was discovered as a completely new species in 2003 by a team of Japanese scientists. Having only been studied using dead specimens, it was thought to be extinct as no live sightings had been reported. The whales in fact did make a few appearances throughout the years, though they were mistakenly thought to be Bryde’s whales because of their similar size. These included the eight whales caught by Japanese research vessels in the 1970s.
After the Omura’s whale was named (in honour of Japanese cetologist Hideo Omura) in 2003, it took researchers years before they were able to observe a live pod discovered off the coast of Madagascar in 2013. Since then, marine biologists, ecotourists and marine wildlife enthusiasts from around the world have helped to search for this species also dubbed as ‘ghost whale’ for being elusive.
Since then, 161 sightings have been made around the world (and charted on on a map) and a majority of them were near coastal waters in the eastern Indo-Pacific. Swimming near coastal waters throws the Omura’s whale under several threats like ship strikes, entanglement, hunting, petroleum exploration (seismic surveys) and coastal industrial development.
This list teaches us that while survival of species is a force to be reckoned with, more needs to be done to protect every living organism from being wiped off from existence. All we need to do is care for our environment. Even the smallest effort counts.