Sunday, 25 January 2009


Given my interest in wildlife conservation, I thought it only right to make my first sciencey post a comment on extinction, or what happens when wildlife conservation fails. One of the best-known extinct species in the popular mind is, of course, the dodo. I won't rehash the story of the dodo here, it has been covered in detail elsewhere. But as a quick summary: the first accounts of dodos came from Portuguese visitors to the then-uninhabited island of Mauritius in 1507. The Dutch colonised the island in 1638. By the end of that century the dodos were gone.

The 2008 IUCN Red List will tell you that the dodo is one of 717 known animal species to have become extinct since their records begin. Some of these extinctions are shamefully recent events, for example the extinction of the baiji dolphin only a few years ago.

Reading about human-mediated extinctions reminds me why I do the work I do. Perhaps it is a futile hope in the society we live in, but I hope that something I do might one day make a difference to some species on the edge. I study Australian wildlife, haunted by the ghosts of the thylacine and the 26 other Australian mammals driven to extinction since 1788 (not to mention the birds, frogs, insects, plants...). As I travel the country I can only feel the gaps left by creatures such as the toolache wallaby, the desert rat-kangaroo or the remarkable gastric-brooding frog. I've seen Tasmanian devils in the wild and I confess the first time it brought a tear to my eye. On my next trip to Tassie I fear I won't see them as easily and if I do it will be bittersweet: since I arrived in Aus nearly ten years ago they have been ravaged by devil facial tumour disease.

Teaching these topics to first year undergrads saddens me. I think some wonder why we even bother. In the face of the weight of history is it futile to hope that there is a place for conservation in this world? I hope so.

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