Untimely Observations

Greens, Blues, and the Extinction of Distinction


Ka ngaro I te ngaro a te Moa (“We are lost as the moa is lost”)

Maori lament

There he kneels, the young, proud, ignorant farmer – posing smiling with his dog and gun, and the unusual-looking predator he has just killed propped up against the fence. It is lunchtime on 13 May 1930, in Mawbanna in north-western Tasmania, and Wilfred Batty has just made melancholy history. The dead lupine creature with the stripes is a thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus – “dog-headed pouched one”)actually a marsupial wolf but inevitably called a Tasmanian Tiger, and Batty was the last man in the world to have shot one in the wild.

Just six years later, the last thylacine died in Hobart’s Beaumaris Zoo – of neglect, kept in the open at night and not fed properly. The animal exists now only virtually – in old drawings, in forlorn film footage of stressed animals in scruffy cages, as moth-eaten museum exhibits, supporters on Tasmania’s coat-of-arms, and as a leitmotif of loss, still occasionally reported by incorrigible romantics from Tasmania’s obscurest thickets. Last year, it became the subject of The Hunter, an ecological parable starring Willem Dafoe based on the 1999 novel of the same name by Julia Leigh.

Humans sweeping south from Asia had wiped out the mainland’s marsupial wolves and almost all of Australia’s other large animals thousands of years earlier, by dint of hunting, burning of habitat and the importation of wild dogs – Australia’s famous dingoes. The dingoes never got to Tasmania, and the Aborigine population of a few thousand had had little impact, so the island became a redoubt of species which could no longer compete elsewhere, protected by the 150 dangerous miles of the Bass Strait. But the thylacine’s death-knell was sounded by the arrival in the early 19th century of dynamic Europeans with firearms, who placed a bounty on the animal, whose pelts they coveted and which they blamed (almost certainly exaggeratedly) for killing sheep. It is speculated that the campaign against the thylacine coincided with a species-specific virus (of the kind now decimating the Tasmanian Devil) which helped push it over the edge into oblivion.

An earlier casualty of European expansion had been the Tasmanian sub-species of emu, two specimens of which died in the collection of the Empress Josephine in Paris in 1822, almost certainly the last of their kind, the former titans reduced to exhibits in a raree-show. The emus’ and thylacines’ tales in some ways parallel that of Tasmania’s Aborigines, who similarly came sharply up against a severely practical modernity in which the most important things were ‘progress’ and profiteering. While controversy continues about the nature and extent of the Black War between indigenes and incomers, it is undoubtedly poignant to see images of Fanny Cochrane Smith, the last fluent speaker of any Tasmanian Aborigine language (wax cylinder recordings of her singing tribal chants survive) – or of Trugernanner, usually accepted to have been the last full-blooded Tasmanian Aborigine. Now, they have died out or been absorbed as surely as the Celtic Guanches of the Canary Islands, like the Sioux as insubstantial as the wind in the grass.

The dodo, too, was trapped by geography, confined to Mauritius, a hitherto remote island that unluckily became a convenient replenishment station for passing mariners after the first Dutch sailors landed in 1598, blown off course en route to the East Indies. Sailors constrained to live for months on weevil-infested biscuit and rotten meat encountered on the previously predator-less island a giant, flightless bird with so little insight into human iniquity that it would wait to allow itself to be clubbed to death. The bird’s flesh was oily, chewy and unpleasant-flavoured apart from the breast-meat, and it was quickly nicknamed walghvogel (“nauseating bird”) and then doedaars (“fat-arse”) from which the present name is probably derived. The meat was so bad that it was often basted in the oil of giant tortoises, which helped push the outsize chelonians into extinction (the only surviving Indian Ocean giant tortoises are those originating from the atoll of Aldabra, north of Madagascar, and even they have had several narrow escapes). This combination of vulnerability and indigestibility makes the dodo’s extermination all the more pitiful, but exterminated it was before the end of the 17th century, battened upon by introduced cats, rats, pigs and monkeys, beaten and grudgingly eaten by men who probably did not know how limited the dodo’s range was, and probably would not have cared even if they had.

Unlike the thylacine, the dodo attracted early affectionate interest from intellectuals like Sir Thomas Herbert, who left one of the most detailed descriptions of the bird in life:

. . . the Dodo, which for shape and rareness may antagonize the Phoenix of Arabia: her body is round and fat, few weigh less than fifty pounds. It is reputed more for wonder than for food…Her visage darts forth melancholy . . .

As early as the 1630s, another Englishman, Peter Mundy, who had hoped to see dodos, recorded disappointedly that “we Mett with none”, and by the time a German sailor named Volkert Iversen was shipwrecked in 1662, the bird was making an ungainly last stand on a few offshore islets. Even then, it acted against its own evolutionary interests, as recorded by Iversen –

One party of us would chase them so that they ran towards the other party, who then grabbed them. When we had one tightly gripped around the leg it would cry out, then the others would come to its aid and be caught as well.

Iversen was the last man to see a living dodo and record the fact, another unwitting witness to extinction, and after this even the memory of the dodo almost disappeared. A stuffed specimen kept by the 17th century antiquary Elias Ashmole (founder of the Ashmolean in Oxford) was thrown away by an over-zealous curator in 1755, except for the head and one foot. There were other pitiful scattered scraps – a foot in London, parts of a head in Copenhagen, parts of another head in Prague. A few museums claimed to possess stuffed specimens, but they were inaccurate fakes of plaster, wire and chicken feathers. It was not until 1865 that the first complete dodo skeletons were discovered on Mauritius (by now, over 50 have been found, all mysteriously at this single site, just two miles from today’s airport) which allowed a clearer understanding of its physiology, and not until 2000 that DNA taken from the beak in Oxford allowed definitive classification of the dodo as a member of the pigeon family (Columbiformes). The bird features in many stories, notably Alice in Wonderland, and has entered the language as the saddest of all similes.

Ten other species of bird have become extinct on Mauritius since the 17th century, and nine on the equally isolated Rodrigues Island, including the dodo-like Rodrigues Solitary. A Huguenot named Francois Leguat who was marooned on Rodrigues between 1691 and 1693 developed a great liking for these cousins to the dodo –

They walk with such stately form and good grace that one cannot help admiring and loving them.

He drew the best-known pictures of the “Solitary Bird”, including a charming map published in 1708, showing the birds stalking proprietarily through their soon-to-be- devastated domain of low hills and scattered trees.

Much less likeable than Leguat were the three Icelandic fishermen, Jón Brandsson, Sigurör Islefsson and Ketil Ketilsson, who landed on the tiny rock of Eldey off southwestern Iceland on 3 June 1844, commissioned by a dealer to obtain specimens of Great Auks, which they were aware were exceedingly rare.

The Great Auk (also called a garefowl, derived from the Icelandic geirfugl, “spear-billed bird”) was a flightless seabird, like the razorbill in appearance but much larger, clumsy on land but graceful and powerful when pursuing fish underwater. It had a huge range from the British Isles to Newfoundland, and they were the original penguins – the word deriving from the Welsh pen gwyn (“white head”), and only later transferred to the similar-looking birds of the southern hemisphere. Apart from being flightless, the Auk also had the disadvantage of laying abstractly beautiful eggs of yellow and black calligraphic squiggles, which were always laid in a tiny number of traditional colonies, the last known of which was Eldey:

As the men clambered up they saw two garefowl…and immediately gave chase. The garefowl showed not the slightest disposition to repel the invaders, but immediately ran along under the high cliff, their heads erect, their wings somewhat extended.

The frantically fleeing birds were running not only for their lives, but for the existence of their race. Inevitably, they were captured and strangled, and someone stood on their solitary egg during the chase. There were spasmodic later sightings, the last reliable one off Newfoundland in 1852, but the Eldey birds were probably the last auks killed by men.

The executioners of Eldey were less excusable than the three men from St. Kilda who in 1840 had captured an auk (the last recorded from British waters) and kept it for three days before beating it to death with a stick during a storm, believing it to be a witch. The bird later featured in stories by writers as diverse as James Joyce (Ulysses), Anatole France (Penguin Island), Charles Kingsley (The Water Babies) and Enid Blyton (TheIsland of Adventure), and is also pleasantly evoked by still-extant relatives like the little auk and razorbill.

Birds seem especially vulnerable to being extirpated, and there is something particularly mournful about their vanishing – perhaps because they remind us of the fleeting nature of our own lives, as they reminded Bede:

The present life of men upon earth is like the flight of a single sparrow through the hall where, in winter, you sit with your captains and ministers. Entering at one door and leaving by another, while it is inside it is untouched by the wintry storm; but this brief interval of calm is over in a moment, and it returns to the winter whence it came, vanishing from your sight.

It does not matter if the bird is an isolated oddity like the dodo, or a prolific species like the passenger pigeon – which may once have been the world’s commonest bird. An 18th century Pennsylvania observer named Pehr Kalm recalled,

In the spring of 1749, on the 11th, 12th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th and 22nd of March…there came from the north an incredible multitude of these pigeons to Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Their number, while in flight, extended three or four English miles in length, and more than one such mile in breadth, and they flew so closely together that the sky and sun were obscured by them.

He records tree branches as thick as a human thigh being snapped by the sheer weight of perching birds “piled up on one another’s backs, quite about a yard high”, and smaller trees collapsing completely.

Audubon records an 1830s flock that took three days to pass overhead, the spectacle made all the more impressive by the birds’ speed, estimated as up to 60 miles per hour. He also records a shoot below a roost in Kentucky when the rush and flutter of the birds and the sound of the branches they broke actually drowned out the sound of the guns.

On such occasions, tens or even hundreds of thousands of birds would be taken, and this slaughter went on for decade after decade. Even this super-abundant animal could not cope with such unremitting massacre, and by the 1890s they were rarely seen. In 1900, a 14 year old Ohio farm boy called Press Clay Southworth joined the ranks of evolution’s exterminating angels when he saw the last recorded wild bird, and naturally shot it. A few birds lingered on in captivity, and Martha, the last representative of her species, died at an advanced age in Cincinnati Zoo on 1 September 1914, sometime between midday and one PM. Her sad, stuffed carcass is on display at the Smithsonian in Washington. In his magisterial 1987 book Extinct Birds, Errol Fuller cites a sad passage from Audubon, referring to the pigeon in life:

When an individual is seen gliding through the woods and close to the observer, it passes like a thought, and on trying to see it again, the eye searches in vain; the bird is gone.

The litany of loss drones on depressingly, from all parts of the world. The world is infinitely poorer for being without the Marquesas Fruit Pigeon, the Mysterious Starling, the Laughing Owl, the Lord Howe Swamphen, the Korean Crested Shelduck, the Carolina Parakeet, the Cuban Red Macaw, the Eskimo Curlew, the Jamaica Least Pauraqué, the broad-faced potoroo, the pig-footed bandicoot, the Quagga, the Steller’s Sea Cow, and the Stephen’s Island Wren. The last-named, which was confined to a tiny island off New Zealand, has the distinction of being the only species both discovered and destroyed by a single animal, a lighthouse-keeper’s cat.

Britain is likewise less interesting for being without such historically present species as the great bustard, crane, elk, beaver, wild boar and wolf – although it is pleasing to record that the great bustard, crane, elk and beaver are being deliberately reintroduced, and the wild boar has reintroduced itself by escaping from farms, and is now reappearing in places it last snuffled through in the 17th century (James I hunted boar in Windsor Great Park in 1617, and there were reports from Staffordshire as late as 1683).

Few are yet seriously advocating the reintroduction of the wolf, even though it lingered in Yorkshire and Lancashire until the end of the 15th century, in Scotland until 1743 and in Ireland until 1766 – but it would be possible for people to co-exist with a small wolf population, and for government to institute a proper compensation programme for anyone adversely affected. The relatively small amounts of money involved would be well-spent in order to re-magic the too-long too-tame countryside. As the early ecologist Sir Harry Johnston observed good-humouredly in his 1903 British Mammals:

Its presence in Epping Forest, in the New Forest, and in other great domains increasingly affected by pleasure parties, would greatly add to their romantic interest, and at the same time might wholesomely check the gambols of the beanfeaster and his mate without subjecting them to any worse punishment than a scare.

Johnston was being waggish (and slightly snobbish), but there is undoubtedly an awe-inspiring quality about seeing an endangered animal up close for the first time, whether an outlandishly-sized crane flying unexpectedly overhead, a bittern dashing up from reeds a few feet in front, or even a jealously-guarded relict population like the unique White Cattle of Chillingham.

There has long been a lazy assumption that Europeans are uniquely environmentally destructive. This conceit goes back at least as far the 18th century idea of the ‘noble savage’, a purported paragon living ‘in harmony with nature’ – an idea which shares similarities with Virgilian eclogues and the Eden myth, and may therefore reflect a perennial human ideal. European culture is filled with wistfulness for wildness – Green Man carvings in churches, folk-tales of wodewoses, medieval bestiaries, the urbanite’s ideal country cottage, ‘cryptozoological’ tales of unknown animals, and of course deep ecology. The rise and spread of the Western model of civilization has long run in tandem with a keen nostalgia for that civilization’s collateral damage.

However, greed, laziness and shortsightedness are sadly omnipresent in all cultures – whether Aborigines wiping out Australia’s large mammals, Siberian tribesmen helping to destroy the mammoth, Africans slashing-and-burning, Polynesians deforesting Easter Island, or Maoris destroying New Zealand’s last moas some time between the 17th and 19th centuries (1). If Europeans have been disproportionately destructive during the course of the last four centuries, it was only because their advanced technology gave them extra opportunities to be so.

In any case, Europeans and those descended from Europeans are now disproportionately responsible for all of today’s conservation efforts. A good contemporary example is Swedish-French film-maker Patrick Rouxel, who has just released a harrowing film documenting the wholesale destruction of the forests of Sumatra by agri-business, even in supposedly protected national parks. His film focuses on the fate of a female orang-utan, “Green”, found clinging forlornly to her tree as all about her all the other trees are felled, eventually falling hurt to the ground and being taken away by kindly campaigners, only to die helplessly on a mattress in a hut, paralysed, puzzled and petrified with fear. (Apparently, some 70% of Indonesia’s forests have been destroyed since the 1950s by the timber, pulp, paper and palm oil industries.)

There is a certain kind of self-described conservative, especially in the Anglosphere, who views such events with equanimity. Many US Republicans, British Conservatives or Australian Liberals take the view that animal extinctions and habitat loss are regrettable, but they are unimportant when set against economic growth. Many on this wing of conservatism side almost automatically with big business without apparently considering that big business is a blind, homogenizing force whose alliance with conservatism is purely tactical. To them, the environment is a mere economic resource, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with drilling for oil in Alaskan wildernesses, factory fishing in the Antarctic, or harmful pesticides in the English countryside. These “Cornucopians” assume rather rashly that economic activities will be carried on responsibly, and that if there are problems they can be solved through human ingenuity.

They appear to feel that ‘the market is always right’ – a bizarre belief, because it implies that the majority of people are always right, whereas of course in truth they are only right sometimes. When it comes to the environment, most people will opt for whatever is easiest and cheapest – the lowest food prices, the lowest energy bills, the least inconvenience – and they are frankly wrong to do so. Conservatives were once opposed to “the reign of quantity” – but much of what passes for conservatism today is really Manchester liberalism. Everything has to be rational and useful and there is little room for abstract notions like beauty, or distinctiveness. Many post-1980s Conservatives and Republicans view environmental protection as an expensive luxury, a form of sentimentality at odds with their particular interpretation of Darwinian logic. The erstwhile Tory ‘squirearchy’ had a real understanding of the countryside, and many were instinctive Greens who supported organic farming, local produce and community cohesion, and preserved huge areas of habitat for pleasure or hunting purposes that would otherwise have been lost to the plough and pesticides. The new Tories, who were largely self-made, did not have this kind of connection, and were easily persuaded that Greens were all, to use the clichés, vaguely communist ‘tree-huggers’, hippies who (to cite Ronald Reagan) “looked like Tarzan and smelled like Cheetah”. This is still a common view, in a movement whose sole rightmost points of reference are too often Reagan, Thatcher and Rand. Some conservatives also take pleasure in provoking the ecological Left – a particularly unfortunate example from last year was when Italian Lega Nord activists held a widely-publicised bear banquet, further endangering a threatened species while reinforcing stereotypes of the Right as crass Philistines. Similar boors probably applauded Wilfred Batty’s ‘enlightened self-interest’.

Yet modern Greens also tend towards utilitarianism, and there is little suggestion of beauty, poetry or even enjoyment in today’s grim Greenery. Among Green activists, there seems to be none of the wide-eyed wonder that one finds in the writings of the great observers of nature – the Leeuwenhoeks, Darwins, Audubons, Fabres, Maeterlincks, Peatties, Cromptons and Durrells – no interest in making nature interesting. For them, the environment is just a ‘resource’, and even the central mysteries of life – like the spontaneous streaming of protoplasm first noted by Robert Brown – are “explained” away boringly as chemical reactions. The nearest they come to mysticism is ‘New Age’ (now in fact rather old-fashioned) nonsense about aromatherapy, ‘healing crystals’ or ‘drumming workshops’. The Nature worshipped by the Greens has been suburbanized, and is fenced around with tedious preoccupations which have no parallels in the natural world – pacifism, egalitarianism, ‘anti-racism’, sexual equality, and yet others. With the downfall of socialism, many former Marxists metamorphosed into Greens (the French MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit is an egregious example) and have taken into that movement their humourlessness, intolerance of dissent and apparent dislike of local diversity. This is ironic, because the leftist dictatorships they used to support have caused – and in the case of China are still causing – incalculable environmental damage, from Chernobyl to the recent, inexcusable elimination of the legendary Yangtze River Dolphin.

The early history of British ecology contains embarrassing horrors for left-leaning Greens, with formative figures like Jorian Jenks and Henry Williamson effectively excised from the polite record. More recently, even conservatives have been marginalized, including some who have made much more considerable contributions than anything proffered to date by Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Edward Goldsmith was a co-founder of the Ecology Party, forerunner to the Green Party – but he was also inexcusably elitist and an admirer of Alain de Benoist. His younger brother James wrote The Trap, often regarded as an environmental classic, and campaigned against genetically modified organisms, but he was also a British nationalist (his son Zac is a Conservative MP, and probably that party’s best-known environmentalist). Their friend John Aspinall devoted much of his life and fortune to wild animals, but he was also opposed to the ANC and to mass immigration. The likes of John Betjeman are never acknowledged as proto-Greens despite dedicating their lives to opposing ugly urbanization, and making powerful broadsides against organic farming, a fact often noted ruefully by the extraordinary David Fleming.

Nor do Green activists feel comfortable about Prince Charles, Robin Page or Roger Scruton. Whereas for Charles “the environment” encompasses traditionalism, human-scale living and aesthetic attractiveness as much as ecological sustainability, many Greens seem to be republicans who feel that tradition is superstition, beauty is ‘classist’, and any kind of (Western) particularism is morally dubious. The Greens have always recoiled in fastidious horror from the pro-fox hunting Countryside Alliance, although it is a genuine grassroots movement made up of huge numbers of real country people. Little wonder then that they dislike Robin Page, who wrote a book analysing The Hunting Gene. Similarly, they disapprove of Roger Scruton, even though he has tried hard to reach out to fair-minded Greens, most recently with Green Philosophy; they find his notion of trying to harness local and national patriotism (which he calls “oikophilia”) simultaneously unconvincing and ominous. Even non-conservatives like James Lovelock, who dreamed up the hugely influential Gaia hypothesis, have been marginalized – in his case simply because he feels nuclear power is necessary if catastrophic climate change is to be minimized.

The generally ‘leftwing’ character of the Green movement (a rare exception is The Ecologist, founded by Edward Goldsmith) in turn deters huge numbers of potential supporters, and ensures their political base will remain confined to a small number of affluent urban constituencies. Ecologists will never be able to extend their reach and ‘save the planet’ unless conservatives and communitarians can somehow coalesce to tackle common problems – including that most urgent and divisive of all, global, specifically Third World, overpopulation (2).

The losers in this unsatisfactory political equation are of course hunted, haunted beasts like the orang-utan “Green” and hundreds of thousands of others, some species of which we may lose even before we have met them, as their homes are logged, drained, burned, built on, grazed, poisoned and homogenized. If we cannot build a comprehensive ecological movement that borrows from both old left and old right, very soon some of our most familiar animals could be confined to zoos or might even have become avoidably extinct. We may live to see a day when tigers, leopards, giraffes, gorillas, vultures or whales are as fascinatingly forlorn as the thylacine, dodo and passenger pigeon, or the rhinoceros remains once unearthed at Charing Cross – mementos of our own mortality, reproachful reminders of a rich world we are still ruining.


1. Some ‘cryptozoologists’ speculate enticingly that a few moas may linger in the deep forests of South Island – but these enthusiasts too often also believe in the Loch Ness Monster, big cats on Dartmoor, the Mothman of North Carolina, the Cannock Chase Bigfoot and the Beast of the Bray Road. But sometimes animals long dismissed as legend really do exist – like the gorilla or the Okapi – while some thought vanished can sometimes be rediscovered, like the coelacanth or the takahé. At present, hope flickers for the “Grail bird” of American ornithology, the ivory-billed woodpecker, last definitely seen in the USA in 1944 and declared extinct. Then there was a new spate of unusually credible sightings in Louisiana in 2004 – although attempts to verify these sightings have failed. In January this year, there were reports that a Galapagos giant tortoise thought extinct still exists. Furthermore, new species are still being discovered (or differentiated), including large and spectacular mammals like the Vu Quang ox found in Vietnam in the 1990s

2. Jonathon Porritt is one of a very small number of mainstream ecologists prepared to look at this problem honestly – most seem reluctant to be seen to criticize Third World governments or populations – and has consequently been attacked by some on the Right for being ‘anti-family’