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Alive only on Film

Posted on in News
[This is a book review that appears in the Spring 2014 issue of Wildlife Australia magazine.]
With animals continuing to go extinct any book that eyes extinction in a fresh way deserve our attention. Lost Animals is significant because it features all the world’s extinct mammals and birds that are survived by photos. As Erroll Fuller says in his introduction, about the difference between paintings and photos:

"It seems that a photograph of something lost or gone has a power all its own, even though it may be tantalisingly inadequate".

That is what I felt after paging through this book and staring at the 28 species that look out from the plates. The lowest resolution images, those of an imperial woodpecker in Mexico (taken from film footage), struck me as especially powerful, perhaps because they resemble scenes out of a dream, one of those happy dreams we wish we could return to. This footage only surfaced in 1997, 41 years after it was taken, and the quality is poor because the film is old but because the biologist who shot it was sitting on a mule. Also very potent are some of the photographs in colour, because the animals look too vivid to be defunct, and because the colour tells us the extinctions happened recently.

Fuller provides dates of extinction or last sightings, including 2004 for the Hawaiian po’ouli (a bird), 2002 for the Yangtze River dolphin, 1988 for the Hawaiian ‘o‘u (another bird), 1985 for the Alaotra grebe of Madagascar and Kauai ‘o’o of Hawaii, 1984 for the Guam flycatcher, 1983 for the Aldabra brush warbler, and so on and so on.

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