What if the Pinta Island Galapagos giant tortoise and the Yangtze giant softshell turtle — each currently estimated to have a population of one — go the way of the dodo? Does this mean that they couldn’t cut it in an evolutionary sense; that they were unfit, and therefore extinction is somehow acceptable?
“The reality,” says Scott Leslie in his new book, 100 under 100: The Race to Save the World’s Rarest Living Things (HarperCollins), “is that the dodo was anything but unfit. Evolution had adapted it beautifully to its environment. Archeological evidence tells us that the one-metre-tall birds were once incredibly abundant on their 600-square-kilometre island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.”
But having lived for millennia without natural predators, dodos had no instinctive fear of anything, which made them easy pickings for the first humans they encountered. In the early 16th century Portuguese sailors stopped by the island to gather food for their journeys’ next leg.
The Dutch arrived in 1638, staying for good. “With them came a marauding army of rats, pigs, cats and dogs,” Scott writes. “The decline of the dodo was swift… gone for good, done in not by its own shortcomings, but by unnatural forces against which it had no defence.”
Such a fate has befallen many other species in the past and likely will more in the future. But it doesn’t have to be this way, Scott maintains. Even against tremendous odds, extinctions aren’t inevitable — as anyone who reads his book will explore.
Scott, who lives in Bear River, NS, says that what got him going on the research for this book is that he’s always had a thing for the underdog. “By choosing species that are both rare and not well known, I felt like I was going to bat for the underdog,” he says. “These species so rare that they’re hardly on anyone’s radar.”
And, he says, the stories associated with these rarest of rare beings are often unexpected and bizarre, taking place in far-flung, exotic and threatened places.
Growing up in Glace Bay, Cape Breton, Scott says he loved his summers spent at the family cottage at a lake, where there were few other kids. “I’ve always been interested in nature and wildlife. I spent a lot of time roaming in the woods, looking under logs, catching fish in the lake.”
The self-taught naturalist — he has a degree in international economics — is best known for his award-winning nature photos (he is also a self-taught photographer); he has owned a scuba diving shop, and spent time as a professional sea urchin diver and an insurance underwriter. But, he says, he likes being a full-time freelance writer and photographer best.
He has four earlier books to his credit, including Bay of Fundy: A Natural Portrait, Woodland Birds of North America and Wetland Birds of North America—and has won several awards for the words and photos he’s had published in magazines, including Saltscapes.
“This book was different than anything I’ve done before. I had contact with a lot of scientists and conservationists around the world... .
“Neat learning about a lot of things; I have a broad interest in many things,” he says, sounding a little like a versatile Maritimer — a species not likely to become extinct any time soon.
Find Scott Leslie online at scottleslie.com.