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It is unclear whether the subject of today’s post actually exists. That would not be such a shocking statement if this article concerned angels, true innocence, or honest politicians, but I am not writing about such abstract concepts–instead I am writing about a large ruminant animal from the bovine family! The saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) is closely related to other bovines such as the aurochs, the wisent, the yak, and the zebu. The creature was discovered by taxonomists only two decades ago, in 1992, in the remote Annamite mountains, a heavily forested range which runs along the sweeping curve where Vietnam meets Laos and Cambodia. Unfortunately the biologists did not find any live specimens of the animal, but they discovered three saola skulls in the houses of local hunters. An exhaustive three month hunt for the living creature turned up nothing.
And yet saolas were subsequently spotted—and even hunted—by local mountain residents after that. In 2010 a live male was captured by villagers, but the creature expired before scientists and veterinarians could reach him. Scientists and rangers have occasionally captured pictures of saolas by means of remote hidden cameras, but the forest animals are so furtive and remote that we only know what they look like, not how they behave (although mountain people call them “the polite animal” because they are said to be so reserved and calm).
Saolas are dark brown with a fetching black strike running diagonally along their back and white slashes on their feet and faces. Not nearly as large as wisents and zebus, adult saolas stand only about 85 cm (3 feet) tall at the shoulder they weigh approximately 90 kg (about 200 lbs). The most noticeable feature of the rare animals are their large antelope-like horns which curve slightly backward and grow to half a meter (1.5 feet) in length. The saolas look like they descended from a common ancestor of antelopes, bisons, and cattle (although they are more closely related to the latter two creatures than to antelopes). Based on their small teeth, saolas are browsers who nibble on tender shoots and berries (as opposed to grazers like cows).
The first paragraph of this post was mercifully disingenuous: the saola almost certainly walks the green earth even as you read these lines. However the saola population is ridiculously tiny: the world population is estimated to be between a dozen and 250 individuals. The government of Vietnam has mounted a spirited defense for the phantasmagoric ruminant by creating wildlife refuges and trying to educate native people not to hunt the last specimens, but deforestation and accidental trapping keep taking a toll (most saolas are captured in traps meant for other creatures). It is possible that, like the wisent, the saolas will again flourish, but more likely we discovered them only to lose them again forever.
In Australia, rabbits are a curse. The long-eared infestation started in 1859 when Thomas Austin, an estate owner, imported a mixture of wild and domestic rabbits from Europe to release on his large farm. He hoped to recreate the hunting conditions of England where he had enjoyed shooting rabbits when younger. He is famously quoted as saying ”The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting.”
Thus began the greatest population explosion of mammals known in human history. Within a decade, rabbits had overrun Southern Australia. Two million of the animals were harvested annually with no effect whatsoever on the larger population. A combination of mild winters, no predators, and light scrub vegetation allowed the creatures to breed year round and increase their numbers exponentially with no natural resistance. They ate away whole ecosystems of scrub vegetation and outcompeted the little marsupial herbivores that lived there into extinction. By gnawing down saplings they killed entire forests within the lifespan of the trees therein. By digging warrens and denuding the vegetation they caused widespread erosion. It was an ecological disaster of the first order–a mass extinction caused by bunnies(!)–and only humans were there to fight the fleet-footed enemy.
Australians responded gradually at first and then with increased alacrity and fury. Shooting and trapping gave way to mass poisonings, ploughing, blasting, and fumigation. Tens of thousands of miles of rabbit proof fence were strung across the continent. Wicked old world predators like rabbits and foxes were imported to stem the flood of rabbits (and naturally the predators first concentrated on eliminating remaining species of Marsupials).
Australians have gradually learned to make use of the rabbits. In times of distress, depression, or famine they have provided a ready source of food for humans and farm animals (ground up rabbits were once a major source of chicken food for example). The fur from so many rabbits created a fur industry and a felt industry. But make no mistake, the Australians still hate the invasive creatures. The twentieth century has seen a new campaign of biological war against the rabbits. In the 1950s an introduced strain of Myxoma virus wiped out an estimated half a billion rabbits. Then in the early 1990s a calicivirus escaped a secure biological research facility (where scientists were engineering the disease to kill rabbits) and quickly spread through wild and domestic populations. Yet despite all of the measures taken to kill the creatures they have endured and thrived. Rabbits are still there, still causing havoc. It is one of the more vivid lessons in human history about the difficulties of controlling ecosystems.
Megaloceros giganteus was the largest deer to ever exist. The huge animal would have stood 2.1 meters (over seven feet) tall at the shoulders and had antlers more than 3.65 meters (12 feet across). During the Late Pleistocene (the glacial epoch immediately prior to the Holocene) the giant deer ranged from Lake Baikal in northern Asia across all parts of Europe down into northern Africa.
In English, Megaloceros giganteus, is more commonly known as the Irish Elk, a name which is something of a misnomer since the creature lived across broad swaths of three continents and was not actually very closely related to elk and moose. The name was originally adopted because many nearly perfect fossils of the Megaloceros were found in the great peat bogs in Ireland. So perfect were the skeletons that a misguided biological theorist, Thomas Molyneux, used the remains as evidence that no species ever went extinct (a question which was at the forefront of science at the end of the eighteenth centery). Molyneux believed that the Irish Elk skeletons were actually those of large moose or elk and that divine providence would never allow an animal to disappear forever from earth. Unfortunately Molyneux was completely mistaken. The great zoologist, Georges Cuvier comprehensively proved that the Megaloceros was very distinct from living Moose and Elk and was therefore gone from the world. It is strange to think that there was a time as recent as the nineteenth century when natural philosophers argued about whether extinction was possible or not.
Although the Irish Elk coexisted with humankind for a long time, sadly something went awry and the great beast went extinct at least 7,700 years ago. Strangely, overhunting by humans was probably not the reason the Megaloceros died out. However the actual reason for the extinction of the magnificent mammal has been a long standing cause of dissent among paleontologists. An obsolete school of thought held that the creatures’ antlers became so immense that the beasts could no longer hold their heads up. A likeminded school of thought believed the antlers (which grew larger and larger in response to female’s preference for a mate with big antlers) left the animal unable to compete with smaller and more nimble competitors. A new theory concentrates on the amount of calcium and phosphate necessary to grow such stately and humungous antlers. As vegetation changed in response to the end of the ice age, the poor Irish Elks could not get enough of the proper nutrients and began to suffer like old ladies from osteoporosis. A final answer to the mystery is still outstanding.
About 8,000 years ago, Neolithic people in India, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa first domesticated cattle. Although the domestication of goats and swine occurred earlier, cattle have a more central role in human history—they were sacred to many of the first civilizations in a way which goats and pigs were not. Cows and cattle are still highly esteemed today. In India cows are sacrosanct and not to be harmed, but, in herding societies like Texas or Argentina, the creatures are arguably even more important. There are estimated to be 1.3 billion head of cattle grazing the green earth today. They collectively outweigh all of the humans on the planet. Of that immense herd, what percentage would you guess are actual wild cattle–forest dwelling primogenitors from which the domestic cattle descended?
That number would be none. The aurochs, (Bos primigenius primigenius) the ancestral cow, went extinct in Poland in 1627. It was the second recorded extinction of an animal (after the hapless dodo). The aurochs were not defenseless dodos: the animals were magnificently muscled giants with wickedly sharp lyre-shaped horns. An adult male aurochs would have stood nearly 2 meters (six feet) tall at the withers and weighed over a ton. Living in swampy and wet wooded areas which they grazed for grass and the occasional fruit, aurochs shared some of their range with the wisent, the Eurasian bison. Aurochs were domesticated in various different parts of the world around the approximate same time. Unfortunately for the wild species, they soon found themselves competing for land and resources with domesticated cattle while still being hunted by human hunters.
Julius Caesar evocatively described aurochs and their hunters in the 6th chapter of The Gallic Wars writing “These are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, color, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied. These the Germans take with much pains in pits and kill them. The young men harden themselves with this exercise, and practice themselves in this sort of hunting, and those who have slain the greatest number of them, having produced the horns in public, to serve as evidence, receive great praise.” Aurochs feature in some of humankind’s most stirring early artworks showing up in cave paintings throughout Europe and on the Ishtar gate of Babylon (where they share company with ceramic lions and dragons). For all the respect that people had for aurochs, the herds began to fail fast, and populations winked out one by one in the wild redoubts of Asia, Africa, and Europe as civilization and agriculture spread.
The last aurochs lived in Poland, which was remarkable for the remote and untouched wildness of some of its forests and for the game loving policies of certain Polish kings, who tried to keep aurochs and wisents alive in order have formidable trophies to hunt. Unfortunately disease and parasites from domestic cattle had weakened the last herd beyond saving. Even with the royal threat of a death sentence for anyone killing an aurochs and with gamekeepers to look after the last individuals, the last female slipped away from natural causes in the mid-17th century. Her remains were reverentially kept by the royal house but they were stolen by Swedes during the havoc of the Swedish deluge. In one respect it was a sad end to a mighty animal. In a more real respect, cattle, the direct descendants of aurochs are everywhere and are doing great! They outweigh any other single species on the planet except perhaps for krill.