The Caribbean monk seal has been officially declared extinct; it holds the unlucky distinction of being the first pinniped driven into oblivion by human activities, but it seems unlikely to be the last.
This species – limpid-eyed, round-headed, and sleek, like all seals, not unlike how Kurt Vonnegut envisioned the future of our own species – needs no eulogy from me. Its greatest memorial is likely to be the remarkable and powerful The New Moon’s Arms by Nalo Hopkinson. A book for a species is no very fair trade, regardless of the caliber of the book, but if that’s how it has to go, the least we can do is have a really good book. And this is.
Declaring a species extinct is always an exercise in the evidence of absence, tricky and unwelcome. The seal has not been reliably seen since 1952 ( slightly less than a decade after the last confirmed nesting of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Louisiana and a decade before the last confirmed sighting of the Eskimo Curlew in Texas) but it likely grew shy as it faded, and may have hung on until the 1980s.
The temptation as always is to ask if it is hiding, but it’s just that, a temptation and a dodge. In any case, the example of its close cousin the Mediterranean monk seal shows that hiding doesn’t help; that species has adapted to give birth in caves with underwater entrances, to avoid rapacious humans, but they are still a contender for most endangered mammal and bidding fair for the distinction of second pinniped to be exterminated by humankind. The New Moon’s Arms has a plot that revolves around finding things thought lost; but it also deals with real, permanent loss. The main character can’t choose what she finds again, and past mistakes can’t always be fixed. Let it stand in memoriam.