For many of us, New Year 2019 was a time to reflect on the achievements of the previous year and formulate good intentions for the year ahead. We reflect, too, on loved ones who passed away during the year. For the animal kingdom, there were several species whose last representative passed away during 2018.
The most recent extinction occurred on January 1 when the only surviving member of a Hawaiian land-snail species died in captivity.
The Living Planet Assessment, a 2016 report by the Zoological Society of London and World Wildlife Fund (WWF), found that global wildlife populations had fallen by 58 per cent since 1970.
This rapid decline has brought numerous animal species closer and closer to the brink of extinction. During 2018 several species disappeared forever, while others, including the iconic Spix's macaw, hero of the movie Rio, became extinct in the wild. The Eastern cougar was officially declared extinct last year, 80 years after the last known individual was killed. The last male Northern white rhino died, leaving only his daughter and grand-daughter alive, making this species functionally extinct.
Many other species are now close to the brink, with remaining populations so small in number that the species as a whole is unlikely to survive. These include the Chinese giant salamander, a "living fossil" whose lineage stretches back to the age of the dinosaurs, and the Vaquita porpoise, a tiny species of dolphin with only 12 individuals left alive.
The American population of migratory monarch butterflies has shrunk by 97 per cent and continues to decline due to widespread loss of habitat and destruction of the milkweed its caterpillars feed upon. The giraffe, once numerous in Africa, has now joined the list of threatened species. In New Zealand, Maui's dolphin numbers are pitifully low and the kākāpō only survives due to massive and continuous human intervention.
Two of the greatest threats to the remaining wildlife on Earth are hunting and habitat loss, both entirely due to human action. These actions threaten the orangutan, our beautiful auburn-haired primate cousin, whose habitat is fast disappearing as rainforests are replaced by palm-oil plantations. Climate change adds another factor into the mix, with the natural range of many cold-adapted animals, such as polar bears, now severely compromised.
On the bright side, concerted efforts have brought both the giant panda and mountain gorilla back from the brink of extinction. During 2018 these animals were declared no longer critically endangered.
As we formulate our plans for good works during 2019, let's also think about ways we can help more of the world's animals. We can give vocal and monetary support to good work that others do. One possibility is donating money to global organisations such as WWF. Locally, New Zealand Forest and Bird and Kiwis for Kiwi both work hard to assist native biodiversity.
We can support and join in with nationwide efforts to control pests. In our own backyards we can ensure that our pets don't predate native wildlife by looking after them well and keeping them under control at all times.
Donations to the kākāpō conservation can be made here.
Margie Beautrais is an educator at Whanganui Regional Museum