Harriet Riley last year won our Wildcare Nature Writing Prize. Her prized essay Endlings has been published in Island 146. We invite you to read Harriet’s beautiful and moving story here, and purchase the magazine online to see it in print.
By Harriet Riley
In 1996 a correspondence published in Nature coined the term ‘endling’ to refer to an animal that was the last of its species. It’s a fantastical word, like something out of a fairytale. An endling lives deep in a dark forest beneath distant mountains, and can only been seen at midnight once every hundred years.
In a way, this isn’t so far from the truth. Every now and then there’s a sighting of an animal, like the Australian night parrot, long thought extinct. But just as often we know exactly when and where the last member of a species died.
Whether it’s Martha the passenger pigeon or Lonesome George the Pinta Island tortoise, every endling is a lesson in how humans should – or rather, shouldn’t – interact with the natural world. But the word endling itself tells us something important too, about how we relate to species on the brink of extinction. We do not see them as real.
Or, perhaps more accurately, we do not see extinction as real.
I first noticed this while consoling a heartbroken ornithologist. It was winter in Sydney and my best friend Katie – who has a PhD in parrots – had just split up with her fiancé, Gus. As rain streaked down the windows of her kitchen, I told her to focus on her other great love. Birds. Gus had never been the only thing in her life, after all, and it was important to do what makes you happy after a breakup.
A few days later Katie was in New Zealand, keeping busy with kea and kiwi deep in the valleys of Fiordland National Park.
The plan worked, or it would have, had she not encountered an endling.
One night in a bar after a long day’s tramping, the locals told her about the kakapo. The kakapo is a greenish, ground-dwelling parrot that looks like an overfed corgi. It’s the world’s only flightless parrot, as well as the heaviest, and because it’s nocturnal it has whiskers to help it to see in the dark. To attract a mate, the male kakapo selects a location in front of a large stone or tree on the side of a mountain, and digs a basin about the size of a paddling pool. He then sits in the centre of the amphitheatre and ‘booms’ – a deep, low call that can be heard by females for miles around.
But European settlement decimated the kakapo. Dogs, rats, cats and weasels – even the settlers themselves – all found the bird delicious and drove it to extinction. This wasn’t unusual; most of New Zealand’s endemic birdlife had fared the same, and Katie knew it. Nevertheless, the story of Fiordland’s last kakapo got to her.
The locals explained that by 1970 all the females had died. Just one lone male remained, and he continued to perform his booming ritual night after night in a nearby valley. Kakapo live for a hundred years and their calls – which are lower than 100 hertz – can carry for five kilometres. Each night the kakapo boomed, and the locals heard him, like the bassline of a song being played in the next room.
Finally, in 1985, he fell silent.
Just like that, Katie fell in love again. The next morning she set off into the mountains with a notebook and Wanderstöcke to find the lost kakapo.
I went along with the kakapo ride. Every few days, Katie would text me a picture from somewhere they’d filmed Lord of the Rings. This, she’d point out, was definitely kakapo country. Of course it was, it was Middle Earth. All sorts of impossible species existed there.
Perhaps that’s why we associate extinction with fantasy; nothing but the epic scale of myth can capture the immensity of losing an entire species. I say an entire species. We actually lose about 383 a day. Because this is the Holocene Extinction Event, the sixth great extinction since life evolved on Earth. The first two were the Ordovician–Silurian Extinction and the Late Devonian Extinction, but it’s the Permian Extinction, known to scientists as the Great Dying, that really takes the cake. When volcanism and bolide impacts heated the atmosphere 252 million years ago, in much the same way that human activity is heating it today, huge quantitates of methane and carbon were released from the land and sea.
Runaway climate change took hold and destroyed a full 96 per cent of life on Earth. It was 10 million years, longer than any other extinction event, before the planet recovered its former biodiversity. Then came the Triassic– Jurassic Extinction, and the Cretaceous–Tertiary Extinction, when a meteorite obliterated the last of the dinosaurs.
But it’s the Great Dying that the Holocene resembles most, with the same changing atmosphere, and the same seismic scale. According to the Living Planet Index, more than half of all living creatures have died out in the last 40 years. Reading this report didn’t give me a conscious sense of dread like most environmental papers do. Instead I felt a deep, primal pain – a disturbance in the force.
That’s how I realised, as Katie was grieving her relationship, that I was in mourning too. I’m a climate scientist, but for the past nine months, I hadn’t read a thing about climate change. Friends would email me links to articles and I would delete them, telling myself that I was too busy, or that I knew that study already.
But the truth was I was avoiding it, because all the news was bad. I’d worked on the issue for years – going to UN summits, prepping lab reports, writing articles – I’d dedicated myself to it night and day for a decade. And every new article felt like a fellow doctor telling me about a cancer patient – how they were getting worse, how they’d been in remission but it had come back. How it had metastasised, how they had found a new drug but it wouldn’t be on the market for another ten years, how it was growing, and changing and shifting and spreading and how we had to prepare for the worst.
So I stopped reading. I started working on other issues. I slunk away from the bedside because nobody wants to watch their patient die. The Living Planet Index was the first climate paper I’d read all year and, sure enough, it led to an eye-scratching, skin-tearing, dirt-in-hair-rubbing outpouring of grief.
I’m not the only one. We call it a climate depression (yes, that’s a weather joke) – and it’s the main reason for the unusually high burnout rates amongst environmentalists and sustainability experts. But new research from around the world shows that it’s not just professionals who succumb. Kari Norgaard, a sociology professor from the University of Oregon, ran a study in which she asked people whose towns had been impacted by climate change to describe how it made them feel. They spoke of fear, frustration, anger, hopelessness and guilt. One of the most telling responses came from a participant living by a river: ‘It’s like, you want to be a proud person and if you draw your identity from the river and when the river is degraded, that reflects on you.’ Climate change destroys your sense of self-worth.
Another survey, this one by Yale and George Mason University, found that ‘most Americans (74%) … “rarely” or “never” discuss global warming with family and friends, a number that has grown substantially since 2008 (60%)’. In other words, the closer we come to destruction, the less we want to talk about it. It’s counter-intuitive, but these negative feelings make us less, not more, likely to fight the problem.
So this is climate change – something that, before depriving us of our lives, first deprives us of our selfworth, and our agency. Thankfully, psychologists know all about this. They’ve studied it everywhere from smokers to drinkers to people in bad relationships. It turns out that when someone thinks they can’t solve a problem, their brain tells them to ignore it.
This insight led to one of the most successful climate interventions ever made. A team of researchers asked a group of climate deniers to install energy-efficient light bulbs, explaining that it would save them money. Several months later the researchers returned and told the participants their light bulbs also saved energy, and had significantly reduced the carbon footprint of each household. They then asked the participants about their views on climate change, and this time, they all believed. The fact that they had already made a difference meant that making a bigger one didn’t seem impossible anymore. They could let themselves believe in the end of the world, because they’d been given a way to help stop it.
Katie, meanwhile, was still in denial. Every day she found signs of the kakapo – tracks, droppings, the severed stems of tussock grass. It wasn’t a completely crazy idea, she told me. The takahē, another flightless bird, had been rediscovered in this very same part of Fiordland, and thanks to conservation efforts there were now 300 of them. Why shouldn’t the kakapo be there too, nestled beneath a stand of pampas grass?
It’s easy to empathise with an endling when you’re single. I’ve thought a lot about how that parrot must have felt, on the night that it died, curled up in the cool loam, drifting off to sleep. He must have been confused at still being alone, but he would have assumed, as we all do deep in our primitive hindbrains, that his mate would arrive tomorrow.
And that’s the problem with the weird romance of extinction. The strange thrill that something might be the last of its kind wakes up an ecstatic hope that it isn’t, that maybe, just maybe, there is a thylacine, or passenger pigeon, or fat, bewhiskered, ground parrot out there beyond the mountains if we could just go and find it.
There might as well be unicorns.
We can’t bring extinct species back from the dead any more than we can escape the consequences of climate change. And one day one of us will be the last human being on Earth.
I was brooding over this solitary image when Katie arrived at the cafe to meet me. She was back from New Zealand, no parrot, no Gus. But she was happy; ‘I wouldn’t marry him now if he was the last man on Earth.’ I laughed out loud, ‘Now we know what happened to the Kapoko’.
To feel grief is to admit that we loved. And sometimes it’s easier to pretend the lost thing didn’t matter than to confront the fact that it’s gone. That’s why we call endlings such a fanciful name, because pretending that they never existed means that there’s nothing to grieve. But any psychologist will tell you that you have to grieve to move on.
We sat in the sun with the galahs and the lorikeets like a float left over from Mardi Gras. A magpie sidled up and gave my carrot cake a long, entitled glare. It was hard to feel depressed around birds like these, and hard to give up the fight.
Then Katie told me about the Kakapo Recovery Programme. In 1989 Stewart Island’s last 61 kakapo were moved to three predator-free islets nearby. A government team took charge of the birds and, since then, their population has risen to 123. The project aims to one day reintroduce the kakapo to Fiordland and has begun restoring two islands in the Park for the purpose.
This, we agreed, was the better way to love – to work for the living, not hunt for the dead. After all, humans aren’t endlings yet, and we can always find new people and new species to care for. Katie got out her phone to show me her photos. It turns out the Kakapo Recovery Programme has some very handsome park rangers.