Yesterday I met Lonesome George. He was the last of his kind and he is now displayed in taxidermy at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He’s tucked away under a glass case in an alcove on the 4th floor amidst other extinct species, but, none of their extinctions are nearly as recent or so prominently displayed.
Natural history museums are full of extinct species like “dinosaurs” and pleistocene mammals. They allow us to experience the remnants of the (mostly vertebrate) life that has existed on Earth throughout its history, but they usually stop their displays prior to current life history, which is where zoos and aquariums take over. However, there are a few cases where charismatic species, like Lonesome George, have their extinctions noted and their species move into natural history.
At the Australian Museum in Sydney, a few relics of recently extinct species are on display, most notably the Dodo and the Tasmanian Tiger. In what makes an astounding metric for just how far conservation has come in the past eighty years, in 1936 the last Tasmanian Tiger froze to death after it was left outside on an exceptionally cold night at the Hobart Zoo in Tasmania. The museum also features a Dodo that has been cobbled together from various errant Dodo pieces—apparently, the last remaining full Dodo specimen was burned at the Natural History Museum in London in an exceptionally tragic house-cleaning in 1755.
It may seem odd to celebrate a system that determines if species are threatened with extinction. You would be right to feel that celebrating 50 years of the IUCN Red List in some contexts feels wrong; extinction is obviously not something to celebrate and neither are the steps along its path. The 50 year anniversary of the IUCN Red List does not condone that there are threatened species, it celebrates the awareness that humans have the potential to cause the extinction of other species and that accumulating knowledge about the status and trends of other species is in the best interest of both people and nature.
50 years ago the concept of threatened species was just a seed. Over a half-century the global conservation community has grown and it has seen and demonstrated the value of using the IUCN Red List system to gauge the status of global biodiversity. The IUCN Red List acts as the world’s barometer of life and the thousands of experts and scientists that contribute to our global repository of species knowledge do so with the hope that the species they represent and the ecosystems they form will be recognized, considered, and conserved. The IUCN Red List is far more than just a list, but with everything that the Red List has become it is not the list itself that halts extinction, people halt extinction, and it is up to us to use and support the knowledge contained in the IUCN Red List to protect our current and future natural history.
Craig R. Beatty