The Sense of an Endling

How the sorrows of extinction can improve our relationship with the living
By
Harry Thorne
B

enjamin died on 7 September 1936 in Beaumaris Zoo, located on the Queens Domain in Hobart, Tasmania, where he had lived for three years. While his death was initially attributed to inclement weather conditions (an unusually cold Autumn night), it is widely held that he fell victim to neglect. When he died, he was as alone as it is possible to be.  

Benjamin was a Tasmanian tiger, or a thylacine, a hybrid Latin-Greek designation that translates as “dog-headed pouched one”. A formidable apex predator with dark transverse stripes and 20-inch tail, the thylacine was once amongst the largest known carnivorous marsupials, with the thylacinus potens (powerful thylacine) species growing to match the size of a wolf. While they were relatively shy and favoured small prey (a 2011 study undertaken by the University of New South Wales claims that they had feeble jaws), their menacing appearance led them to be widely feared. As Tasmania’s surveyor-general wrote of the thylacine in 1806: “Eyes large and full, black, with a nictant membrane, which gives the animal a savage and malicious appearance.”

Thylacine all but vanished from mainland Australia some 2,000 years ago, but at the start of the 19th century a population of approximately 5,000 still prowled their native Tasmania. But the arrival of British settlers to the island in 1803 took a merciless toll on this population. Their natural habitat broke down, their prey grew scarce, they fell victim to new marsupi-carnivore diseases transferred by captive livestock. They were also blamed for a spate of attacks on sheep. In 1830, in an attempt to control their numbers, the newly established Van Diemen’s Land Company established a bounty scheme: £1 per dead adult and ten shillings for cubs. In all, 2,184 bounties were fulfilled.

Benjamin died alone in the truest sense: he was an ‘endling’, the last known specimen of his species. (A farmer named Wilf Batty shot the last wild Tasmanian tiger in May 1930, having discovered it in his hen house.) By the time a species is reduced its endling, it is functionally extinct. What in ecological circles is referred to as ‘extinction debt’ (the toll of past events upon the future of a species) accrues over centuries and defaults to a last known survivor, who must shoulder the burden of history alone. Lonesome George, the Pinta Island tortoise; Martha, the passenger pigeon to fly; Booming Ben, the heath hen: these endlings walk the earth as dead things, as zombies. They are finality incarnate, full-stops at the end of a script.

The rapid loss of species today is estimated to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate; the number of plants that have become extinct in the last three centuries is 500 times higher than it was before the industrial revolution. Thus, when we look upon endlings, or the negative space around them, we see more of ourselves than we might like. We see, within the absence, the fatal result of our collective negligence. As Ed Yong writes in The Atlantic, these creatures ‘embody the crisis facing our dwindling fauna – and our failure to avert it.’ Endlings are tragic figures, heart-breaking even, but they are not so because they are alone. They are tragic because we have condemned them to exist as such.

“Caring for an endling”, Yong continues, “can nonetheless serve as a final act of defiance, or perhaps contrition.” As with all dying things, endlings arouse within us a particular form of compassion. (When Lonesome George passed away, the Telegraph reported that “the world mourned”.) When we interact with something or someone who is not long for this earth, we take it upon ourselves to ensure that their final days are comfortable, spent amongst friends and love. Perhaps this urge is innate, the result of some survival-instinct-by-proxy that allows us to access hidden reserves of tenderness. Perhaps it is pragmatic, enacted so as to ensure that our own death is peaceful. Perhaps we are impelled by guilt. But the troubled history of humankind tells that our respect for the dying often eclipses our ambivalence for those who live. We are distant, unloving, until death necessitates we do our part.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature, the global authority on the status of the natural world, oversees the “Red List of Threatened Species”. Established in 1964, the Red List tracks global extinction risk status of animal, fungus and plant species. Currently, it lists 116,000 species, around 31,000 of which are threatened with extinction. (These include 41% of amphibians, 34% of conifers, 33% of reef building corals, 25% of mammals and 14% of birds.) The database is colloquially referred to as the “barometer of life”. But what is “life” in this context? And why, given our above-discussed propensity to treat life with indifference, does it take priority over death? That is what we are measuring, after all: death, and the cumulative probability thereof.

We consider our planet immortal, believe that living things are impervious to death. Our existential need to block out (thus defy) that which we cannot comprehend nor conquer – namely our own mortality – conditions the manner in which we interact with our lived environment and, as such, we refuse to acknowledge that it can cease to exist. We must find ways to live, and this is surely one of them, but it is dangerous. In entertaining such a parochial outlook on the natural world, we establish a potentially fatal paradox: in denying the possibility of death, refusing to bestow upon the living the same compassion or respect that we feel for the dead, we greatly increase the likelihood of death coming to pass.

If indeed we are to reinvest in the biodiversity of our planet, and at this point it is vital that we do, then so too must we reinvest in the inevitability of its death. For only when confronted with the prospect of dying do we remember how to care. Only when confronted with the reality of our collective failure will we realise that weren’t doing enough.

(In 2019, Tasmania’s Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment released a document detailing eight reported sightings of thylacine across three years.)

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