Friday, 16 May 2014

One of the Last

I came across this extraordinary photograph - at once comical and sad - the other day. It shows an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker - a bird of legendary rarity, almost certainly now extinct - perching on the head of James Tanner. Though he looks like a weather-beaten backwoodsman, Tanner was a Cornell graduate student who spent two years, from 1937 to 1939, studying Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers in the Singer Tract, an expanse of virgin forest on Louisiana's Tensas river, publishing the results of his researches as his Ph.D. dissertation.
 Tanner estimated that there were then no more than two dozen Ivory-Bills surviving in the whole of America, with no more than eight in any one place. The only hope of saving the species was to preserve the Singer Tract untouched. But the logging rights to the tract had already been sold, and a desperate campaign by the National Audubon Society only speeded up the rate of tree felling. A purchase offer by the Audubon Society's president was turned down, and the lumber company got to work in earnest. Visiting the Singer Tract in the winter of 1943-4, conservationist Richard Pough found one female Ivory-Bill in a patch of remaining uncut forest. She was still there in April 1944, and that was the last time anyone definitely saw an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. 

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