Tasmanian Tiger in the Room of Endangered & Extinct Animals in Paris (all photographs by the author)
Like most natural history museums, the Grande Galerie de l’Évolution in Paris is a swarm of children and corralling parents, all trailing through the stunning exhibitions of taxidermy elephants and whale skeletons. However, up on the second level you’ll find a room that isn’t frequented as much, where the lights are barely on. In each of the wood and glass cases is a creature that is disappearing, or already gone.
La Salle des Espèces Menacées et des Espèces Disparues, or the Room of Endangered and Extinct Species, has 257 specimens from the animal and plant kingdoms. Many are the only remaining examples of their species, such as the skeleton of a black emu (the taxidermy is so precious that it is kept in storage). Others represent a species that is on the brink of obliteration, including the Sumatran tiger.
Compared to the rest of the museum, the Room of Endangered and Extinct Species is kept at a cooler temperature, the lights low to preserve the remains of these animals. The museum celebrates the biodiversity of the planet, yet here is evidence that its vibrancy could easily vanish. Much of the loss is from humans, like the Schomburgk’s deer of Thailand chased to extinction for its ornate antlers, while the Martinique Muskrat met its ultimate end when it chose Mount Pelée as its final refuge, just before the volcano erupted in 1902. Some have been so wiped off the Earth that all that survives is a branch, or an egg, to represent a whole species.
It’s a haunting experience to walk through the hall, with most visitors struck silent by the assemblage of these ghosts. From one side of the gallery a gleaming gold clock made for Marie-Antoinette, confiscated in the French Revolution, chimes out periodically through the quiet. Yet more than a memorial, the space is meant to be a call to action, to consider what has been forever lost, but also what can be saved.
Below are some photographs from the gallery, along with the specimen’s story:
Rhodonessa caryophyllacea: The pink-headed duck of Asia suffered a loss of habitat and hunting for its feathers, and unfortunately was incapable of reproducing in captivity. The last individual was seen in 1935. Although some have reported spotting it in recent years, it is widely believed extinct.
Alca impennis: The great auk lived in the North Atlantic, and unfortunately lacked a fear of humans, which made it easy hunting for its feathers, flesh, and skin. It was last seen in Greenland in 1815, and Newfoundland in 1840. The last specimen was believed killed in 1844 on the island of Eldey, where the final colony of birds had fled following a volcanic eruption at their former Iceland home. This specimen at the Grande Galerie is from Scotland, acquired by the museum in 1832.
Pteropus subniger: The small Mauritian flying fox, also known as the “rougette,” was once soaring all over the islands of Réunion and Mauritius. Unfortunately, it was hunted for its meat and had its population further decreased by deforestation, disappearing in the 19th century.
Cervus elaphus corsicanus: The Corsican red deer still lives in wildlife refuges, but since the 1970s development has completely pushed it out of its original home where it had thrived for 8,000 years.
Rucervus schomburgki: This taxidermy from 1862 in Paris is the only fully mounted example of Schomburgk’s deer. The Thailand deer was extensively hunted for antlers used in Chinese medicine, and was also a victim of habitat loss. The last known example of the species was killed in 1932. Due to some antlers turning up in a medicine shop in 1991, however, some believe there may still be survivors.
Equus quagga quagga: The quagga looked like a donkey that ran into a zebra, and was named for the sound of its strange call. Due to hunting it went into decline in the 19th century, believed extinct by the 1880s. This example in Paris was brought from Africa to the menagerie at Versailles in 1784.
Dromaius baudinianus: The Kangaroo Island emu, or black emu, was hunted for its skin in the 19th century and disappeared after 1840. This skeleton is the only one known in existence.
Marie-Antoinette’s clock, chiming in the gallery
THE ROOM OF EXTINCT AND ENDANGERED ANIMALS, Paris, France