By Stuart Winter
To the untrained eye, Martha the passenger pigeon looked little different from the scraggy street doves searching for scraps outside her cage.
Yet her long years in captivity at Cincinnati Zoo had seen her elevated to star attraction and feted like an American First Lady, a fitting tribute to a humble bird named in honour of George Washington’s beloved wife.
By the time Martha had reached her dotage in 1914, visitors across the US and beyond were making pilgrimages to see her alone on her perch.
The offer of a $1,000 reward to find a mate to keep going a species which had once numbered five billion but was wiped out by trapping and shooting went unclaimed.
Her death is regarded as the key moment in conservation history: living, and dying, proof of mankind’s ability to wipe out a fellow species and the realisation that extinction really is for ever.
Martha’s story is told in Lost Animals, published by Blooms- bury, one of a series of projects and books in the New Year marking the centenary of her death and highlighting the spectre of extinction.
Just as poignant is Going Going Gone, also by Bloomsbury, which looks at 100 species – some famed, many little known – moving towards the brink because of the pressures of the modern world.
To highlight the threats, 100 wildlife conservation groups were asked to choose a species that epitomises their work and the dangers faced. The answers will surprise many.
While the mighty African elephant, dashing Amur leopard and polar bear might be expected to appear in a list of endangered animals, the wildlife organisations also nominated a vast array of plants, invertebrates and even threatened habitats.
The Orangutan Foundation highlights the plight of the great ape of the Sumatran and Bornean rainforests. Logging, mining and clearance for palm oil seriously threaten the flame-coated ape. Today, fewer than 60,000 survive. More....