Some of the best Olympic victories are the surprise ones: pulled off by competitors who were not expected to win. Already in Sochi, we’ve seen a triumph by the last woman standing after a crash in the women’s 500m short-track speed skating race. It’s reminiscent of Australia’s historic first winter Olympic gold medal in 2002. And wouldn’t Canada love to forget the men’s hockey upset at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, where the underdog Swiss managed to beat our dream team of NHL stars?
Like athletes, the underdogs of conservation can also surprise. When I was working on Catalina Island in 2005, I noticed an unfamiliar-looking grass during a routine plant survey. It turned out to be Dissanthelium californicum, a plant not seen since 1903, so presumed extinct! These rediscoveries are more common than you might think. Here in Canada, the lovely little pink sand-verbena once inhabited the wild wind-swept beaches of Vancouver Island’s west coast, but had not been seen since 1915. A local botanist rediscovered it in 2000 on a beach along the Pacific Coast Trail in Pacific Rim National Park. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been seen there again since 2001. Nobody knows whether it is holding out in the seed bank, waiting for the right conditions, or if trampling by hikers and competition from invading beach grass have made another comeback impossible.
It may seem easy for small plants to go unnoticed for years, but even more rambunctious (and conspicuous) mammals can go unobserved. The black-footed ferret was declared globally extinct in 1979, and hadn’t been seen in Canada since 1937. However, a small colony was discovered near Meeteetse, Wyoming, in 1981. Based on that tiny remnant population, an intensive international captive breeding and reintroduction program has brought the black-footed ferret population back up to about 700 animals in the wild, including a small population in Grasslands National Park.
Time after time, the Olympic Games have shown that you can never rule out the underdog. It may take extraordinary luck or strange circumstances for them to triumph, but even the underdogs have years of training and commitment behind them. Many species that we think are extinct may be holding on somewhere; but even if they are rediscovered, most are still on the brink of extinction. It will take extraordinary circumstances – in the form of a lot of help and commitment from us – for these species to triumph over extinction in the long term.