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Sense of an endling

The death of Lonesome George raises questions of how many endlings we will see.

There’s a wonderfully Tolkien-esque word for the last animal of a species: an “endling”. Their stories are always fascinating and usually don’t reflect at all well on humans.

Martha the passenger pigeon was one. After dying in 1914 in Cincinnati Zoo, she was frozen in a block of ice and sent to the Smithsonian Institution, where she sits (in a cupboard) today. Martha was a remnant of a species that had once dominated North America; it is estimated that there were as many as four billion – yes, billion – passenger pigeons when the Europeans arrived. John James Audubon, the great artist-ornithologist, once watched a flock pass overhead for three days straight.

Unfortunately, the social nature of the pigeons meant they were easy to slaughter: you could smoke them out or walk into woodland at night and simply grab a sleepy one from the forest floor. Because of the pigeons’ initial abundance, they were regarded as cheap food for both humans and livestock and, by the time the warning bells sounded, it was too late. A photo of Martha shows a handsome bird, more elegant than a town pigeon, with a long neck and tail balancing out her bulbous body.

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Images  exist of a few other endlings: the one of Benjamin the thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) is particularly haunting. Benjamin stands at the chain-link fence of Hobart Zoo, looking at another animal, perhaps a dog, on the outside. For Benjamin, there was no mirror image of himself (or herself, as scientists now think) and the introduction of dogs to the Australian island might have been part of the reason. She died on 7 September 1936.

Endlings are also recorded for the quagga, an equine with zebra-like stripes on its front half, which died in 1883 in a zoo in Amsterdam; a Caspian tiger killed in the 1950s in Uzbekistan; and whichever of a pair of great auks killed in 1844 off the coast of Iceland died second.

There is a poignancy about all animals that turn out to be the last of their kind. But it’s greater when we know, while they are still alive, that they represent the final flickers of something that we are helpless to save. That was the case with Lonesome George, the last Pinta  Island giant tortoise in the world.

Before George was discovered in 1972, scientists had thought that Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni was extinct. Once he died on 24 June, at the age of 100, they were right. There are many tragic aspects to his story but the one that stood out for me was how he had the same keeper, Fausto Llerena, for all the 40 years after he was found.

The 2007 BBC documentary Lonesome George and the Battle to Save Galapagos shows Llerena talking with quiet affection about his charge. “If you appreciate him, he’ll want to show he appreciates you,” he says. “When he sees me come over, [he extends] his head to welcome you, to say here I am, I am well. It is as if he is trying to communicate.”

Now that the animal Llerena tended to for so long is gone, we have to ask: how many more endlings will there be?

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. She is the author of Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights (Jonathan Cape).

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Clegg the martyr