During the month of September in the year 1598 a flotilla of ships belonging to the Dutch East India Company drew close to a mysterious island far out in the Indian Ocean. As far as anyone knows, no human had ever set foot on it, those who came ashore found themselves in a land of reptiles and birds: the only mammals were those that could fly or swim there. Birds were everywhere, one in particular stood out – a large fat creature equipped with an enormous beak; and so, man’s relationship with the dodo began.
As we now know the relationship didn’t go well for the dodo. After many months at sea the birds presented a tasty alternative to the sailors usual diet; the birds couldn’t fly, they had no need to, they had no predators, so the catching was comparatively easy. With man came dogs, cats, monkeys, pigs, and rats. All preyed rapaciously on the birds and their eggs.
By the year 1680 (or possibly earlier) the dodo was gone. All that was left were one or two poorly stuffed examples, a series of paintings, most of them produced by a dutch artist called Roelandt Savery, and a few written descriptions. So, less than 100 years after its discovery, the dodo passed into history.
Over the next two centuries the dodo became something of a footnote in the tale of natural history. Some naturalists even began to deny that it had existed. Then during the 1860’s a great collection of bones arrived in London, all of them from the dodo. These had been found in a marsh on Mauritius by a school master, Charles Clarke. He had sent workers into water at the centre of the marsh, about 3ft deep, where bones had begun to turn up. Feeling with their naked feet they discovered the bones of many dodo’s. From these bones London’s Natural History Museum was able to assemble an almost complete skeleton.
A very few reasonably complete skeletons have, over the years been assembled from these bones.
From this time onwards the dodo’s rise to become one of the the great icons of extinction was as unstoppable as its demise at the hand of man.