Several years ago Punch, or Private Eye or some such magazine ran a memorable little cartoon. Two strange and exotic looking birds were standing behind a bush while in the distance some people were walking by. ‘Best keep quiet,’ one bird was saying to the other. ‘We’re supposed to be extinct’.
Maybe the birds in the cartoon have now blown their cover. For in the real world, one of the most famous extinct birds, the ivory-billed woodpecker of the southern states of the US, was announced earlier this year not to be extinct after all but very much extant. The bird had been considered lost for decades.
Within a few weeks, another great comeback was announced. The Wollemi pine, once a Jurassic favourite but thought to have been extinct for at least 2 million years, was alive and well and ready to be propagated. Suddenly, the coelacanth, that famous old fish that resurfaced after 65 million years back in the 1930s, and the takahe, a New Zealand flightless moorhen-like bird rediscovered after half a century in 1948, were being dredged up for comparison. All these species, along with several others, are now bracketed together in the ‘back from the dead’ category that we champions of the underdog love so much.
But the reason these stories are truly magnificent is the fact that none of the creatures and plants involved have come back from the dead at all. A series of comebacks? They never actually went away in the first place; it was just that we weren’t with them for a while. They’ve been going about their daily business, their life cycles, their struggles for existence, just as they always did. We only view them differently because it’s human nature to perceive the world around us through the prism of our own experiences. As a result, these are the tales that show that life is actually greater than any label or judgment we can put upon it. If a tree falls in the forest when no one is around, does it make a sound?
Yet from time to time, of course, species really do become extinct. We may not be able to put an exact date on the death of the last individual, but they’re gone. And when they’re really gone, there’s no coming back – at least not in the manner that we know them.We spend a vast amount of our time trying to stop this happen, setting up biodiversity action plans and national nature reserves, surveys and taggings, WWFs and RSPBs, and it’s good that we do, but in our attempts at conservation we must never lose our sense of appreciation. Life comes and goes, whether or not we’re the agent of its demise, and in all our efforts and hard work to keep it going we must never forget why we’re doing so. The life and lives around us – the creatures, the plants and the people – are our pleasure, our stimulation, our interest and our love. Protect them, of course, but above all else enjoy them. That’s what we’re all here for.
Malcolm Tait’s new book The Countryside Companion is published by Robson Books in September. This article is dedicated to Peter Tait, illustrator for and reader of The Ecologist.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist July 2005