Nature: The Loneliest Animals

Sun, 04/19/2009 - 9:00pm
Pictured: "Lonesome George" in his enclosure at the Charles Darwin Research Center, Galapagos, Ecuador.
Photo Credit: Paola Toapanta
The loneliest animals are the most endangered species on the planet. Collected and protected by dedicated scientists, these animals represent the end of the line for their species. In many cases, intensive captive breeding programs have been launched with the aim of sustaining these animals and the hope of returning them to the wild. Viewers are taken into high-security, high-tech labs where scientists attempt to breed new generations and into the field to discover what forces have led to the demise of entire species. Nature: The Loneliest Animals airs Sunday, April 19 at 8 p.m. on WXXI-TV 21 (cable 11) and WXXI-HD (cable 1011 and DT 21.1).

In the Galapagos Islands, one giant tortoise lives the most extreme kind of solitary existence. He is the last of his kind on the planet. For centuries, sailors and pirates plundered his island for tortoise meat until they thought there were no more. The only one to escape the slaughter was "Lonesome George." Yet George is far from alone. At 90 years of age he is a poster child for a growing group of species with dwindling numbers. Scientists warn that up to 100 species a day are being pushed into extinction.

One of China’s rarest treasures resides in a zoo in the southern city of Changsha. She is an 80-year-old Yangtze giant soft-shelled turtle, the last known female rafetus turtle in the world. At one time these turtles flourished throughout the Yangtze River valley, until modernization and overhunting all but destroyed them. Still, there is hope. When researchers discovered the last known male rafetus, 600 miles away in Suzhou, an historic blind date was arranged, and if all goes smoothly, this ancient Adam and Eve may live to see their species reborn.

In Indonesia, the Sumatran rhinoceros population has been decimated by poachers who kill the animals for their horns, which can be worth up to $15,000 a pound. Deforestation threatens the few that are left. When the captive breeding program at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary failed to produce any offspring, the Sanctuary turned for help to the Cincinnati Zoo, home of Andalas, the first captive-born Sumatran rhino in more than one hundred years. Andalas was recruited as a potential mate for a young female rhino back in Sumatra. If they do produce a baby, it will be an important first step toward protecting and preserving these rare animals.

Wildlife sanctuaries around the world make every effort to reverse the fate of the dwindling few who make up the last of their kind. Lemurs born at Duke University wait to go home to Madagascar, where humans have cleared the island of 80% of its forest. The black-footed ferret of North America, once considered extinct, is now being successfully returned to the wild in northern Colorado. The world’s most endangered cat, Spain’s Iberian lynx, is being bred and kept in strict biosecurity until offspring can be returned to an equally endangered wild scrubland. A wildlife preservation center in the heart of the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar shelters over 2,000 rare and critically endangered animals. They are all survivors on the edge, now relying on us to save them from an uncertain future.