Thought to be extinct, the baiji dolphin no longer swims in the Yangtze River in eastern China – but now, you could find it swimming in your living room. Along with other extinct animals, it is being brought back to life as an augmented reality experience.
“The Zoo of Extinct Animals” is a project started in 2020 by creative director Sebastian Koseda that allows you to observe and interact with 3D representations of extinct wildlife in your own environment, through a Snapchat lens.
You can watch the dolphin twirl around in water and make it move around you. A carrier bag can also be seen floating around, suggestive of the plastic waste that has infiltrated its habitat.
The animals Koseda is featuring have all already gone extinct in the last 20 years due to human activity. Through the project, he aims to “raise awareness and show what we’ve already lost as a call to action – to make a change.”
“Generally, the feedback is like: ‘Oh my god, wow, that’s beautiful. It’s a dolphin swimming in the living room,’” says 32-year-old Koseda, who is based in London. “And then: ‘Oh god, it’s extinct. That’s really sad’. So, it hits home. It’s like: ‘Oh, I’ll never be able to see that in real life.’
“Because it’s out of sight, it’s kind of out of mind … that these animals are going extinct in places that we might not see, like in the Yangtze River,” he adds. “It’s still happening and it’s still due to human interaction, human disruption (and) pollution.”
Wildlife is vanishing
The baiji, nicknamed the “Goddess of the Yangtze,” is a type of river dolphin that was native to the Yangtze River and the neighboring Qiantang River. It was declared functionally extinct in 2006, with the last verified sighting being of a pregnant female in November 2001. The main cause of its extinction is thought to be habitat degradation and the level to which it was being unintentionally caught by local fisheries.
All over the world, wildlife numbers are in decline. Nearly two-thirds of the world’s wildlife population has been lost over the past 50 years, according to a recent WWF report, and there are currently more than 38,500 species threatened with extinction, including 41% of amphibians, 37% of sharks and rays, 26% of mammals and 14% of birds.
Koseda’s project will initially focus on five recently extinct animals: the baiji dolphin, the Pyrenean ibex, the West African black rhino, the Formosan clouded leopard and the Caribbean monk seal. The lenses for the dolphin and ibex have already been released, and Koseda and his team are currently working on the rhino, which they hope to complete within the next six months.
They are working with researchers at University College London to help develop the models for the animals. They first have to find photographs and then create base 3D models, which they try to match as closely to the photographs as possible.
“That takes the most time because you’re essentially building a skeleton,” adds Koseda. “Imagine a puppet and it has points that move the most. You would essentially be creating that for the animal and then animating so it seems as lifelike as possible.”
Koseda is not the only one using technology to visualize extinct creatures. France-based SAOLA Studio has teamed up with the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, using augmented reality to revive 11 species that are extinct or close to extinction, in a project called “Revivre.” In 2016, Google Arts & Culture partnered with more than 50 natural history institutions to create virtual reality dinosaur experiences.
Koseda, who runs his own design studio, Studio Koseda, says he only began to focus on his own projects in the last two years and “wanted the first few projects to be around environmental issues.”
His idea for “The Zoo of Extinct Animals” came from conversations with his brother about whether or not nature was healing itself during lockdown. Koseda says: “It did just raise some questions and I think this is a way of exploring that narrative further and seeing where it can go.”