Extinctions in recent history

Image: Black rhino.
In 2006, the International Union for Conservation of Nature issued a press release announcing that the West African black rhinoceros is believed extinct. New surveys failed to locate any western black rhinos and found only four northern white rhinos. However, it remains in the "Critically Endangered" classification. Another creature which is believed to have become extinct recently is the Baiji white dolphin, whose only habitat was the Yangtze river delta. In December 2006, The Baiji Foundation reported that a six-week expedition by scientists from six nations searched without success for evidence of their continued existence. ► More pictures of animals extinct this century.
Baiji white dolphin.
Most people are aware that dodos, the flightless bird of Mauritius, became extinct towards the end of the 17th century. Since then, the extinctions rate for animals and pIants has increased. We are in the middle of a sixth mass extinction, and this one is largely due to human activities.
Chart: the modern mass extinction.

G.W. Steller, a ship's physician and naturalist, wrote the first formal description of the 'Sea Cow' in 1741. It was the largest marine mammal belonging to the order Sirenia, and the only cold-water variety. Manatees and dugongs belong to the same order as the sea cow, and are considered close to extinction at the present time. Sea cows inhabited shallow waters in the Bering Sea and fed on algae, sea grasses and kelp. They travelled in herds and some individuals could be as large as 28 feet in length (9 meters).
Recent extinctions.
Steller's ship had been wrecked off the coast of Kamchatka. The crew killed sea cows for food and said meat from the younger ones tasted like veal. Steller's account of the animals he discovered on the voyage was published in Latin in 1751: De Bestiis Marinis, or "The Beasts of the Sea". An English translation is available as a PDF document from the University of Nebraska. Here is an extract describing the behaviour of sea cows:
"But if one animal is caught with the hook and begins to plunge about rather violently those near him in the herd are thrown into commotion as well and endeavor to assist him. To this end some of them try to upset the boat with their backs, others bear down upon the rope and try to break it, or endeavor to extract the hook from the back of their wounded companion with a blow from their tails, and several times they proved successful. It is a very curious evidence of their nature and of their conjugal affection that when a female was caught the male, after trying with all his strength, but in vain, to free his captured mate, would follow her quite to the shore, even though we struck him many blows, and that when she was dead he would sometimes come up to her as unexpectedly and as swiftly as an arrow. When we came the next day, early in the morning, to cut up the flesh and take it home, we found the male still waiting near his mate; and I saw this again on the third day when I came alone for the purpose of examining the entrails."

Within 3 decades other mariners had decimated the herds. In 1768, the explorer Martin Sauer described the killing of the last known sea cow in his journal. There have been claims of recent sightings, but none have been confirmed. It's possible that small whales or elephant seals were mistaken for Steller's sea cows. Note: The name is occasionally misspelled Stellar's sea cow.

Image: Saddle backed tortoise.

The Mascarene islands off the east coast of Madagascar were home to more than half a dozen species of giant tortoise. Many were driven to extinction before naturalists could catalogue them, so nobody knows exactly how many. On the island of Rodrigués the saddle-backed giant tortoise was able to reach foliage 4 feet above ground. In the 18th century, sailing ship crews captured these animals to provide fresh meat on long voyages. Giant tortoises could survive for more than fifteen weeks without food or water and were said to taste like mutton. In the early 1700s there were flocks of thousands of tortoises roaming the islands. By the end of the century saddle-backed tortoises on the island of Rodrigués and many species on the neighbouring islands had become extinct. The last sighting of a saddle-backed giant tortoise was in 1795.

Image: Quagga.

Quagga were a variety of zebra with stripes at the front of the body (Photo, London Zoo, 1870). They roamed South Africa's Cape Province in large numbers until the 1840s, when hunting by the Boer settlers rapidly depleted their numbers. The last wild quagga was probably shot in the late 1870s. The last zoo specimen died in 1883.

Image: Tasmanian Wolf.

The Tasmanian Wolf, or Tasmanian Tiger as it is sometimes known, was a large carnivorous marsupial. The photograph above was taken at Hobart Zoo in 1933. These predators slept during the day in nests or hollows and hunted at night. When human settlers cleared forests to make space for sheep and poultry farms Tasmanian Wolves ravaged their livestock. Consequently, both the Tasmanian government and private landowners were willing to pay bountly hunters to kill as many as possible. In 1930, a farmer shot and photographed the last known Tasmanian Wolf in the wild. The last captive specimen died at Hobart Zoo in 1936. As reported in the Australian newspaper, The Age, extinct or not, the story won't die.

More 19th/20th century extinctions

Two small selections of mammals which have become extinct within the past two centuries are listed below. The date of the last confirmed sighting in the wild is shown in brackets.

Nineteenth century: The Cape lion from South Africa (1858), the Falkland Island wolf (1876) and the Sea mink (1894).

Twentieth century: The Barbary lion from Morocco (1922), the Bali tiger (1937), the Queen of Sheba's gazelle (1951), the Japanese sea lion (1951), the Caribbean monk seal (1952) and the Javan tiger (1976).

Link: List of all mammals extinct since 1500 AD.

The Sumatran tiger is severely endangered and the Caspian tiger became extinct in the second half of the 20th century. Descendants of Barbary lions and Cape lions have been located in zoos, but may have been cross-bred with other subspecies in the past.

The Extinction Website in English and Dutch (Netherlands) lists hundreds of recently extinct species in all animal groups.

Updated : 9/13/2007 | Home >>