Monday, September 1, 2014

One hundred years ago today...

...the last passenger pigeon, a female named Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo.  A species that once had an estimated population size of 3 billion was destroyed in roughly 50 years by a combination of habitat loss and overhunting.  The story of that extinction is being told in numerous articles on this centenary (i.e. in Nature, Audubon Magazine, National Geographic) and at museums like the Smithsonian Institute which tell the story far better than I could here.  The Audubon Magazine article, in particular, is well worth reading as it details the history of the extinction.



Model of Martha at the extinction exhibit, Cincinnati Zoo, Cincinnati, Ohio

So, could such an extinction happen today?  The sad answer is yes, that it not only could but that it is happening today.  We see the same market incentives to get every last remaining individual that doomed the passenger pigeon in the case of the bluefin tuna, whose Pacific population has collapsed to just 4% of what it was in the 1950s.  The protection of the little that remains has been held up by fishing interests, mainly in Japan, Mexico, the US, and South Korea.

The illegal ivory trade claimed an estimated 100,000 African elephants since 2010, which is considered to be a gross underestimate by some experts.  The last large survey of elephant populations in 2007 placed the total number at only 472,000 and 690,000 elephants remaining in Africa.  Jones and Nowak wrote that they suspected that the current population was around half of that number.  At current rates, many areas of Africa will lose their elephants.

The Western Black Rhino, a subspecies of black rhinoceros, was recently driven to extinction by habitat loss and overhunting, both for sport and to meet demand for powdered rhino horn in traditional Chinese medicine.

In the US, measures to protect the lesser prairie chicken were held up for years due to opposition from various economic interests.  This despite losing 86% of their habitat.  What finally broke the logjam was a population crash that saw a 50% reduction in population in just one calendar year (2012-2013).  The population now hovers around 17,000 birds.

These are just a few of the many examples I could cite from around the globe.  Habitat loss and overhunting still play a major role in extinctions today, just as they did 100 years ago.  And just like 100 years ago, market forces still overwhelmingly favor those who try to kill every single last individual.  Now we get to add climate change to the mix, which is predicted to have major impacts on extinction rates in coming decades.  You would hope that by now, we would have learned our lesson from the passenger pigeon.  Unfortunately, we as a society appear to be trying to prove that George Santayana was correct when he said "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

1 comment:

  1. For me this is one of the indispensable blogs. I don't have a science background, and here valuable information is presented in a way that I usually can understand. Unfortunately, your inattention to language sometimes makes comprehension more difficult than necessary. Look at the following paragraph:

    “The illegal ivory trade claimed an estimated 100,000 African elephants since 2010, which is considered to be a gross underestimate by gross underestimate by some experts. The last large survey of elephant populations in 2007 placed the total number at only 472,000 and 690,000 elephants remaining in Africa. Jones and Nowak wrote that they suspected that the current population was around half of that number. At current rates, many areas of Africa will lose their elephants.”

    What does “which is considered to be a gross underestimate by gross underestimate by some experts” mean?

    Is it “which is considered to be a gross underestimate by some experts?” Or is it something else?

    What does “placed the total number at only 472,000 and 690,000 elephants” mean? Are we supposed to add the two figures, or is it at between 472,000 and 690,000?

    Less important: “The illegal ivory trade has claimed ... since 2010.

    Please proof read. If you can't see your own mistakes, consider allying yourself with someone from your English dept. who appreciates what you're doing.

    ReplyDelete