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These are the world’s lost and lingering legends

Bigger than life, Re:wild’s 10 lost legends are spurring action for threatened species

By Milo Putnam on February 10, 2022   duration

Lonesome George, a Pinta Island Tortoise (Photo by Arturo de Frias Marques)
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Kismet or fate are the only fitting words for the coincidence that occurred in the early morning of March 9, 1982. 

Deep in the wilderness of Tasmania near the headwaters of the Salmon River, experienced field ranger Han Naarding came across an animal that he soon after reported to be the Thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian Tiger, a species that had taken on nearly mythical proportions around the world since the last-known individual died at Hobart Zoo in 1936. Naarding recalls counting 12 stripes on the animal’s back that cold, wet morning, even watching it yawn, before he reached for his camera, startling it before he could get the photo. After vanishing into the dark, despite Naarding’s efforts, he could not produce any evidence of the encounter. Without a photo, there wasn’t enough proof to suggest that maybe the Thylacine had been prematurely declared Extinct in 1982, but the report is regarded as one of the most reliable sightings on record.

On the same day, at the same time Naarding saw what seemed like a ghost, on mainland Australia a future conservationist, who would dedicate himself to helping Australia’s unique wildlife, was born. Tim Faulkner, president of Re:wild partner Aussie Ark, says the timing is nothing more than a coincidence, but his career has continued to draw him to the Thylacine. Since 1982, the legacy of the Thylacine has helped drive the vital work Faulkner and Aussie Ark do in creating a long-term future for Australia’s threatened wildlife, ensuring other species don’t follow a similar fate. 

“I dream about the Thylacine regularly,” Faulkner says. “But my life has become about channeling that into species that need our help now to prevent them from becoming Thylacines. The next largest carnivorous marsupials are all in strife. That’s a core part of what I do, of what Aussie Ark does too.

Thylacine, also known as a Tasmanian Tiger. (Artwork by Tyler Thrasher)

"The Thylacine’s legacy should be a stark reminder of extinction," says Faulkner. "Our grandparents and recent ancestors could have seen it, but there are living Thylacines now, and they are Tasmanian Devils, and they are quolls, and they are wildlife that still need our help. That should be the Thylacine’s legacy.” 

The Thylacine and species with similar stories are lost legends – the species that very well may be extinct and whose rediscoveries are long-shots, at best, but that have captured our collective imagination and live on as alluring icons. Unlike many lost species that have slipped into obscurity, lost legends remain sought-after, almost mystical in nature. 

Why do we cling to the hope that certain species await rediscovery while other species slip into obscurity without notice? What can we learn from the stories of the lost legends? And how can we leverage the interest in these species to save their fellow species that are destined to follow them into likely extinction without intervention?

The lost legends 

As part of Re:wild’s Search for Lost Species program, which maintains a list of the 25 most wanted species that haven’t had a confirmed sighting in a decade or more—but have not been declared Extinct by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species—we have launched a new list of lost legends. These 10 icons may seem like mythical creatures with fanciful folklore, but the lost legends are instead incredible species that were prematurely driven to extinction, vanishing right before our eyes. In addition to the Tasmanian Tiger, the list includes:

  • Kouprey 

  • Ivory-billed Woodpecker 

  • Golden Toad 

  • Sloane’s Urania Moth 

  • Yangtze River Dolphin 

  • Eskimo Curlew 

  • Pinta Island Tortoise 

  • New Zealand Grayling 

  • Saint Helena Olive

From whimsical freshwater dolphins to ancient giant tortoises of the Galapagos Islands, these species have remained idolized, almost frozen in time. To this day the Kouprey, a towering forest-dwelling ox, remains the national mammal of Cambodia even three decades since its last confirmed sighting.

These species remain revered, somehow set apart from the countless other species teetering on the brink of extinction today. They continue to mobilize scientists and hobbyists alike in the quest to rediscover them. This fascination, in some cases an unquenchable craving, to locate any evidence is what seems in part to propel their popularity.

The legacy of legends 

The reality of writing the obituaries of these lost legends is widely contested. Have they truly gone extinct? Should the searches continue? What is the likelihood these species remain? While many argue that belabored searches for rediscovery could divert focus from other threatened species, passionate individuals are quick to reject this sentiment.

Kouprey at Vincennes Zoo in Paris 1937 (Photo by Georges Broihanne) Usage info: This image is a faithful digitisation of a unique historic image, and the copyright for it is most likely held by the person who created the image or the agency employing the person. It is believed that the use of this image may qualify as fair use under the Copyright law of the United States.

The disappearance of the Costa Rican Golden Toad, for example, sounded the alarm for amphibians globally. In the late 1980s researchers noted nearly 1,500 toads emerging to breed, but just two years later only a single male Golden Toad was reported to have remained. 

“Globally, the Golden Toad is unique because it was really the species that sounded the alarm bell of the amphibian crisis--and eventually climate change and chytrid fungus,” says Trevor Ritland, co-founder of Adventure Term and a devoted Golden Toad explorer. “For me, the idea that this species that started it all--awareness of amphibian vulnerability, research into climate change and epidemics, and even the modern extinction crisis--might still be out there changes everything. If the Golden Toad were to be rediscovered, it would not only give us broader hope for other vanished species, but it would help validate the grassroots conservation work that has protected so much forest around the historic habitat of the Golden Toad.”

Saint Helena Olive, one of the lost legends. (Photo by Dr. Rebecca Cairns-Wicks)

Even in their absence, lost legends can generate more than hope, they can help attract people to the field of conservation, says John C. Mittermeier, director of threatened species outreach with American Bird Conservancy, which recently partnered with Re:wild and BirdLife International on the Search for Lost Birds. 

“My personal hope is that the legends and the species like the Eskimo Curlew or the Ivory-billed Woodpecker can inspire people to do searches for some of the other lost species out there,” Mittermeier says. “The exciting thing about these lost legends is that they counter apathy, they get people super excited, they generate books, they generate expeditions, they generate passion, and people going and spending hours and weeks and months going and searching for them and being out in nature.”

Spotlighting extinction 

The demise of these vanishing legends can also act as a guide, a North Star for species on the brink of a similar fate. The Tasmanian Devil is the closest living relative to the Thylacine, but in the last 20 years, their population has been decimated by a contagious cancer, and before that they were outcompeted on mainland Australia by Dingoes. 

In large part because of the legacy of the Thylacine, Faulkner has dedicated his life to restoring the Tasmanian Devil population with the creation of the largest conservation breeding program for this species on mainland Australia. The culmination of this work led to the 2020 release of Tasmanian Devils into a nearly 1,000-acre wildlife sanctuary, which have since produced their first wild joeys on mainland Australia in more than 3,000 years.

Yangtze River Dolphin, one of the lost legends. (Artwork by Tyler Thrasher)

This reintroduction signifies a promising shift for the recovery of the Tasmanian Devil, and as the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial, this species fills the ecological role needed to help control feral cats and foxes that threaten other endangered and endemic species. And the Tasmanian Devil is just one of seven cornerstone species critical to Australia’s ecosystem that Aussie Ark plans to reintroduce to the wild sanctuary in the coming years, all chosen to help restore the natural balance: Eastern quoll, Brush- tail Rock Wallabies, Rufous Bettong, Long-nosed Potoroo, Parma Wallabies and Southern Brown Bandicoots.

By keeping lost legends and the threat of extinction in the spotlight, many, including Faulker, believe their stories are critical for spurring action for imperiled species that have a chance at survival. 

“At some point, there will come an acceptance that the Thylacine is gone,” says Faulkner. “If its focus and its legacy could have a greater benefit to its relatives, Dasyurids--carnivorous marsupials; Tasmanian Devils and quolls, species that are facing and heading toward extinction, I would welcome that shift, and that attention if some of that energy went to living but threatened and endangered potential Thylacines.”

About the author

Milo Putnam

Milo is Re:wild's communications specialist working with our partners to share their stories in protecting and restoring the wild. With over a decade of natural resource interpretation and environmental education experience he lives to spark connections between people and wildlife. Milo loves to travel with his husband and is passionate about supporting ethical wildlife tourism.

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