I’ll be spending the next year on a National Geographic Storytelling Fellowship, chronicling a conservation group’s search for “lost species.” My itinerary still in process, but I hope to travel to Colombia to search for lost parakeets, to Kazakhstan to track a missing sturgeon, and to the Galapagos to visit with a century-old tortoise that had been hiding in plain sight on a remote western island.
The project will follow teams from Global Wildlife Conservation, an NGO that is seeking to find species that have not been seen in the wild for many decades, and in doing so call attention to efforts to save them and the crucial habitat that may support them. I plan to write about the hunt for these elusive species, and explore how stories of bold exploration and hope can spur conservation.
In 2017, a Texas-based NGO called Global Wildlife Conservation launched the “Search for Lost Species,” compiling a list of the globe’s 25 “most wanted” creatures—species that haven’t been seen in the wild for many decades. The list of the missing, compiled in consultation with dozens of IUCN experts, includes mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, marine creatures, insects, and one plant. In each case there is anecdotal evidence—such as unsubstantiated sightings, local lore, or black-market specimens—to suggest the creatures may not yet be extinct. In the two years since the campaign has launched, three species have been found, and the organization plans to announce two more rediscoveries in the coming months. These “found” species provide rare notes of hope amid a demoralizing litany of lost or disappearing species: vaquitas, white rhinos, Lonesome George the Galapagos tortoise.
Species are lost for any number of reasons: habitat destruction, disease, poaching, invasive species, human-wildlife conflict, or because they are very rare to begin with. But they are found only for one reason: because people are looking, calling attention to the globe’s vast diversity and to the importance of protecting it. These creatures’ struggles for survival—or rather, our own struggles to secure their survival—pose a number of fascinating questions: about how we find and count species; how we determine threats to them; how we help them; how we measure success; if and why we care about the survival of uncharismatic and obscure creatures teetering on the edge of extinction. In joining the hunt for these unseen species, I hope to illuminate those issues and answer some of those questions.