In the last few weeks, two large animals have been officially declared extinct – the Formosan clouded leopard and the rhinoceros in Mozambique.
Credit: Georgios Kollidas
The Formosan clouded leopard was the second largest carnivore in Taiwan, after the Formosan black bear. A team of local and US zoologists had been trying for 13 years to find the species, using thousands of infrared cameras and scent traps. The last known evidence of these animals came in the 1990s, in the form of pugmarks located near Yushan National Park. Despite an extensive search, none have been found since then. As with many extinctions, the likely cause of their demise is poaching and destruction of natural habitat due to development projects. The only Formosan clouded leopard remaining in Taiwan is now a stuffed specimen at the National Taiwan Museum.
Another large animal – the rhinoceros – has disappeared from Mozambique, according to both a leading rhino expert and the warden in charge of Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park. Wiped out more than a century ago by hunters, they were reintroduced several years ago, but have again been driven to extinction by poachers seeking their horns for sale in Asia. Somewhat ironically, the picture above depicts a rhino on Mozambique's national currency.
Other notable extinctions in recent years include the following:
The Alaotra Grebe
A freshwater diving bird, once endemic to Lake Alaotra and surrounding lakes in Madagascar. The species declined over the course of the 20th century, mainly because of habitat destruction, entanglement with monofilament gillnets and predation by the introduced snakehead murrel fish. This was the 162nd bird extinction since 1600 AD.
Image credit: L. Shyamal
The Eastern Cougar
Also known as "ghost cats", these animals were decimated by European settlers arriving in the eastern United States during the 1700s and 1800s. The last confirmed Eastern cougar was trapped in the late 1930s and the species was officially declared extinct in 2011. Considered by many biologists to be a subspecies of the North American cougar.
Image credit: US Fish & Wildlife Service
The Western Black Rhinoceros
One of the four subspecies of black rhino. In 2006, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) announced that it was tentatively being declared extinct, but efforts to locate surviving individuals continued. The last western black rhino is believed to have been killed in 2011. The remaining three subspecies are critically endangered.
Image credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service
The Japanese River Otter
Formerly widespread in Japan, the population suddenly collapsed in the 1930s, and the mammal nearly vanished. Since then, it has only been spotted several times. The last official sighting was in 1979. It was subsequently classified as a "Critically Endangered" species on the Japanese Red List. In August 2012, it was officially declared extinct by the Japanese Ministry of the Environment.
Image credit: Hiroshi Kibe
Pinta Island Tortoise
The Pinta Island tortoise was a subspecies of Galápagos tortoise. By 1900, most had been wiped out due to hunting. By the mid-20th century, it was assumed that the subspecies was extinct, until a single male was discovered on the island in 1971. Efforts were made to mate the male, named Lonesome George, with other subspecies, but no viable eggs could be produced. Lonesome George died on 24th June 2012 and the subspecies was believed to have become extinct. There is hope, however, as 17 first-generation hybrids were recently found on Isabela Island. Genetic analysis showed that these hybrids had a parent like Lonesome George. Since these specimens are juveniles, their parents may still be alive.
Image credit: Mike Weston
In a world increasingly dominated by human industrial activity, many more species of both animal and plant life will go extinct in the coming decades. If present trends continue, it is estimated that rhinos could disappear completely by 2025 – not just in Mozambique, but worldwide. Elephants are under severe threat, too, with industrial-scale poaching reducing their numbers by 40,000 each year. If nothing is done, the world's biggest land animal could vanish from the wild by 2024, a prospect that seems almost unthinkable, yet is fast becoming a reality. Prices for ivory and rhino horn have soared in recent years, a situation made worse by corruption of wildlife rangers offered money from criminal poacher syndicates.
Hunting and poaching activities pale into insignificance when compared to a far greater problem, however: climate change. Some scientists estimate that up to half of presently existing species may become extinct by 2100. Already, the rate of species extinctions is between 100 and 1,000 times the normal "background" rate seen in the fossil record. This could increase tenfold by the mid-21st century. We face the prospect of a genuine mass extinction, something which has only happened on five previous occasions in the whole of Earth's 3.5 billion year evolutionary history.