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Blue Planet: Whither the warrah?

By DAN WHIPPLE, UPI Environment News   |   Oct. 25, 2002 at 2:00 PM   |   Comments

In 1813, an American sea captain named Charles Barnard sailed his ship, Young Nanina, near the Falkland Islands to kill some seals for their fur.

"From my boyhood," the captain wrote, "I have loved and pursued a seafaring life, and have performed many voyages to various parts of the world."

The Falklands are a small archipelago in the Atlantic near the tip of South America, littered with hundreds of small islands and bays and with the ribs of lost vessels.

In the year of Barnard's voyage, America was newly at war again with Great Britain. Over the summer months, Barnard and his crew scanned the horizon for signs of British warships as they took in furs. One day in April, they spotted a thick plume of black smoke coming from three small islands at the southeast entrance to Falkland Sound.

Barnard debated. It could be a British warship. More likely it was a shipwreck. He wrote that curiosity got the better of him, "We reasoned only like ... inquisitive men, and we resolved to discover the cause of our solicitude."

Abandoning his sealing temporarily, he took the Young Nanina to Eagle Island. There he found the wreck of the British cargo ship Isabella, bound for England from Australia with 47 passengers and crew, a number of families among them. The company, marooned since early February, was living in stone huts.

Barnard agreed reluctantly -- the Britishers, now enemies, outnumbered his small sealing crew -- to take the company to Buenos Aires as soon as he had provisioned his ship enough to make the trip. He took the Young Nanina's shallop -- a small boat propelled by both oars and sail, used in shallow waters -- with four crewmen, two from the British crew and two of his own, on a provisioning run to one of the neighboring islands.

When he returned, his ship was gone. He checked the area to see if they had at least left him provisions. There was nothing -- no food, no weapons, nothing except what he carried in the shallop. The people he had tried to rescue had stolen his ship and left him and his companions to starve.

Hoping they had simply moved his ship, he made a dangerous journey to Weddell Island in his small boat. Starving, each crewman on Weddell eventually was left to his own devices, heading out in five different directions. Barnard went " ... in search of something to eat, and luckily procured some seal's flesh, two foxes and three geese. The foxes here are such strangers to man, and his means and power of destruction, that they view him with the greatest indifference, unless he is carrying a goose or some other kind of fowl, when they will, without hesitation, attempt to seize, and convert it to their own use; but they generally paid dear for their temerity, being knocked down and killed by our seal clubs. I ate some of their flesh, but it is so very strong that nothing but the sauce of extreme hunger could force it down."

So far as we know, flavored by the sauce of extreme hunger, Capt. Barnard is the only person who ever made a meal of Dusicyon australis -- the Falkland Islands fox, (or maybe wolf, the taxonomy is uncertain), known locally as the warrah.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, in Cambridge, England, publishes a "Red List" of threatened species that includes only seven mammals in the entire Western Hemisphere known to have become extinct since 1600. The enigmatic warrah, in turn, is the only canid among that magnificent seven.

Not many people study extinction. One who does is University of Chicago's David Raup.

"Strangely, extinction does not have a large body of scholars or scholarship," Raup said. "No scientific discipline carries the name."

Although scientists study the arcane disciplines of biostratigraphy, evolutionary biology and island biogeography, and extinction is part of these, it is only part. Perhaps it is too depressing.

There are many uncertainties in knowledge about how many species exist today, and how quickly extinction is being visited upon them. Estimates range from 5 million to 100 million varieties of organisms on this planet. Terry Erwin of the National Museum of Natural History has estimated there are 30 million species of arthropods in the tropical forests alone.

The warrah, with its guesstimated lifespan of 9,000 years, actually beat the recent averages. Human activity has reduced the average life expectancy of a species to 1,000 years, and will reduce it further to 100 years at the end of the next century. Species now are going extinct at the rate of three every hour, according to some estimates.

In March of both 1833 and 1834, the HMS Beagle anchored in Berkeley Sound in East Falkland Island. Ship naturalist Charles Darwin was unimpressed: "desolate and wretched ... covered by a peaty soil and wiry grass, of one monotonous brown colour."

Among other animals, Darwin noted one species of fox. "The only quadruped native to the island is a large wolf-like fox (Canis antarcticus)," he wrote, "which is common to both East and West Falkland. I have no doubt it is a peculiar species, and confined to this archipelago; because many sealers, Gauchos and Indians who have visited these islands, all maintain that no such animal is found in any part of South America."

Darwin made a rare prediction about the Falklands wolf (or fox): "Their numbers have rapidly decreased; they are already banished from that half of the island which lies to the eastward of the Sound. Within a very few years after these island shall have become regularly settled, in all probability this fox will be classed with the dodo, as an animal which has perished from the face of the earth."

Darwin did not forget the Falklands fox. He left the islands for the last time a year and half before he landed in the Galapagos Islands. Though he personally saw only the foxes on East Falkland, there were persistent reports of major, predictable differences between animals found on West and East Falkland. The western foxes were said to be smaller, much redder and darker in color with finer fur than their eastern brethren.

In 1836, as the Beagle cleared Ascension Island in the Atlantic on its homeward voyage, Darwin began organizing his notes from the expedition, focusing on his observations in the Galapagos. He wrote, in what has become a well-known passage in the birth of evolutionary theory, "When I recollect, the fact that from the form of the body, shape of scales & general size, the Spaniards can at once pronounce, from which Island any tortoise may have been brought, When I see these islands in sight of each other, & possessed of but a scanty stock of animals, tenanted by these birds" -- now called Darwin's finches -- "but slightly differing in structure & filling the same place in Nature, I must suspect they are only varieties ... "

In the very next sentence of this note to himself, Darwin wrote, "The only fact of a similar kind of which I am aware, is the constant asserted difference -- between the wolf-like Fox of East and West Falkland Islds. -- If there is the slightest foundation for these remarks the zoology of Archipelagoes -- will be well worth examining; for such facts would undermine the stability of Species."

After Darwin's visit, the animals more or less vanished from natural history. A bounty was put on them to protect the sheep industry in the Falklands. On Dec. 6, 1870, the Secretary on Additions to the Menagerie in London reported, "Amongst the acquisitions the only animal worth remark was a female of the Antarctic Wolf (Canis antarcticus) received November 8. Mr. H. Byng, the acting colonial secretary of this colony, kindly forwarded a pair of these animals as a present to the Society's menagerie; but one only survived to reach the Society's Gardens. Mr. Byng states that, as Mr. Darwin prophesied would probably be the case, the animal, formerly so common, has now become almost extinct on the Falklands, the depredations it commits upon the Sheep having rendered its extirpation necessary."

Our unfortunate Captain Barnard, last seen chowing down on the soon-to-be-extinct warrah, survived, but not until he had suffered a great deal of privation and loneliness. His group was finally rescued in 1814 by British whaling ships. He never recovered his stolen ship, despite a long, fruitless lawsuit.

The last warrah was killed at Shallow Bay, West Falkland in 1876. Even his remains are mostly forgotten. There is a specimen at the British Museum, and one in a Swedish museum.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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