Tuesday, 15 September 2015

The last of her kind

Due to the lack of time, my latest extensive post has been long ago, I apologize. This time, I want to present a drawing I recently did plus a little bit of background information.

It is an illustration of the last aurochs after its death in 1627. 

As frequent readers of my blog will know, the Polish forest of Jaktorów was (most likely*) the last refuge for the aurochs on earth. They were guarded, forstered and also hunted. In the year 1557 the herd numbered probably about 50 animals. But habitat loss, lack of nourishment, poaching and cattle diseases made effective conservation increasingly difficult, as did the severely cold winters**. So their number shrunk to 38 in 1567, then 24 in 1599 and subsequently four in 1602. By 1620, the last male aurochs had died (One of this bull's horns was ornamented and preserved and is now housed at Stockholm, here). Now the species was eventually doomed to extinction.

* There is the possibility that a game park at Zamoyski kept aurochs around 1600, based on a written document.

** I say it would be wrong to claim that climate changes, which had undoubtedly happened back this time ("Little Ice Age") drove the aurochs to extinction just as man did. I see no reason why a healthy aurochs population with a sufficient range would not have succombed such a cold phase, which surely was not the only one this species ever experienced. But it certainly was a triggering factor in the extinction of this - because of human influence - highly vulnerable population.

The last aurochs was a female that died in 1627. It was not, as widely believed, poached or shot by hunters, but it seems to have died a natural death. Perhaps because of old age, but there is room for many possibilities. There is no information on what happened with its body or horns - neither was her skull defleshed and is now housed at stockholm, nor is her horn that of the last bull from 1620 linked above, as some sources on the web claim. Maybe it was just left to decay in the field as I illustrated.

So we can imagine how this old, tired and probably mangled cow wandered around somewhere in the light forests of Jaktorow. She had not seen a conspecific for seven years now, and we do not know her exact age and if she ever calved, but she managed not to starve, not to get killed by the wolves, not to die of some disease, not to get poached and was spared from being hunted down for all these years. Now, perhaps during a cold winter, she is looking for some shelter between old oak trees to retreat from the cold. She lies down and closes her eyes forever, and one more species vanished from our planet.

Perhaps it was like this when the last aurochs died, or perhaps not.


Cis van Vuure (2005): Retracing the Aurochs: History, Morphology and Ecology of an extinct wild ox.


  1. Another very interesting article. I appreciate that you are quite busy with your studies but I wonder if in some time in the future you might cover Jens Christian Svenning's work on rewilding especially his recent project where he is studying the ecological impact of Indian Elephants released on a small patch of ground outside Randers tropical Zoo in Denmark. He believes that elephants should be released to improve natural areas as a proxy for the Straight Tusked Elephant. From reconstructions, it looks to me that apart from being taller with longer, straighter tusks they are very similar to Indian elephants. I don't know if it is possible to genetically test how close they are due to the age of the Straight Tusked remains but it would bring up interesting possibilities if closely related. Anyway, best regards, Dave Kenny

    1. Which work by Jens Christian Svenning are you refering to? I can't remember at the moment.

  2. Nice article. Too bad that even in this late stage of this animals existence, with at least some gamekeepers and noblemen actually realizing the animal was on the verge of extinction, still nothing could be done to prevent it. With current knowledge we would have said to those 16th century 'conservationists': add some non-wild cattle to broaden the genetic basis and maybe you'll be able to conserve a herd of semi-aurochs.

  3. This is one great and deep story. It's sad tho. It's sad nobody bite an eye for the animals these days. When the people realize their mistakes it may be a little too late.

    1. What is interesting is that books, media and info tables at museums and zoos showing the most recently extinct animals (dodo, thylacine, quagga and the likes), nearly always forget about the aurochs.