Thursday, April 9, 2015

Extinction: Pigeons and Rhinos

The World Has No More West African Black Rhinoceroses 

Today the news of the extinction of the West African Rhino was popping up on my Facebook feed.  Sadly this news is not new, the news wasn't even new when the article I linked to above was written. The West African Black Rhino was declared officially extinct in 2011, ten years after the last confirmed sightings by researchers.  In 2001 there were 10 known living West African Black Rhinos.  The last ones were probably poached by 2003.  There are no West African Black Rhinos in captivity.
The West African Black Rhino

Every last one is gone.  They are all dead.  They were hunted to extinction by poachers.  There are still other rhino species around, and even other Black Rhino subspecies, but if you ever wanted to see a West African Black Rhino in the flesh, you are too late.

The glass-half-full perspective is that we don't need to worry about how to save the West African Black Rhino anymore...

But all kidding aside, I find it very sad that without cloning, I will never be able to see one of those amazing mammals.  It got me thinking about another species that I wish I could have seen, the Passenger Pigeon.

The Passenger Pigeon

The World Has Not Had Passenger Pigeons For 101 Years

The passenger pigeon 150 years ago was one of the most abundant land vertebrates in Earth's history.  There were more passenger pigeons than there were human beings at the time.  There were around 5 billion passenger pigeons that lived in the Eastern United States.  They migrated in truly massive flocks that would darken the sky and fill the air with the thunderous sound of their passage.  The flocks were so huge that they could bring their own weather.  Unbroken flocks of passenger pigeons could take 14 hours to pass. These flocks would literally rain bird poop that would cover the areas they passed like snow.  For a bird species that was a little over a foot long and less than a pound, it would have taken truly astronomical numbers to darken the sky, bring their own wind, and cover the landscape in feces.

For the people living in the US in the mid 19th century the idea that anything that humans could ever possibly do would ever be able to seriously affect the passenger pigeon population was laughable.  I would be akin to draining the sea.  Passing flocks contained more birds than there were stars visible in the night sky (literally, you can only see like 10,000 stars at night).  The passenger pigeon was seen as an inexhaustible source of free food.  And up until the Industrial Revolution caught up to the pigeons, that was pretty much true.

It's worth pointing out that until recently in historical terms, most people (at least in the monotheistic parts of the world) believed that it was literally impossible for a species to go extinct.  The impossibility of extinction was a part of the arguments against a long chronology for Earth.  Every species that god created had to still exist, as a point of faith, and as an underlying assumption about the nature of reality.  The idea of extinction was every bit as anathema to many Christians as the more familiar debates of today about evolution, or whether the world is billions of years old or 6,000 years, or whether or not humans are even capable of causing global climate change.

When you think about how efforts to save the passenger pigeon in the later decades of the 19th century were totally disregarded, it is worth remembering that not only was the idea that humans even could wipe out a species like the passenger pigeon seen as laughable, for many people it was at least impossible by their understanding of reality if not blatantly heretical.  For many people in the US today the same is still true regarding topics like evolution and climate change.

Industrial Hunting and Industrial Poaching

With the coming of the railroads and instantaneous communications (telegraph), along with the loss of habitat due to the deforestation of eastern North America, industrial style hunting was able to rapidly transport pigeon meat to new distant markets even as the species found itself losing the habitat it had evolved for.  To give you an idea of the scale of passenger pigeon hunting, at a nesting site in Petoskey, Michigan, in 1878, 50,000 birds were killed each day for nearly five months.  That was just one location, similar things were going on all over the country.  But the proximity of passenger pigeons Great Lakes region nesting grounds to the emerging meat distribution industry hub that developed in the Midwest meant that the heaviest hunting was conducted where it was most devastating.

From a population of billions in the 1850's the last wild passenger pigeon was shot by a boy with a BB gun in 1900.  In 1914 the last captive passenger pigeon, Martha, died.  A powerful proof of the ability for industrialized humanity to alter the planet.

Of course nothing was learned from this.

Buffalo, who once numbered in the millions, were hunted to the brink of extinction by industrial hunting.  Joy killing of musk ox herds from planes in the mid 20th century led to the extirpation of Alaskan musk ox.  The musk ox had to be reintroduced from Canada after US populations were wiped out.  And that is just in the US.

In China, in the Mid 20th century, Mao promoted traditional Chinese Medicine.  This helped lead to an industrial level demand for Rhino horns, among other animal body parts like bear's gall bladders.  Today three of the extant species of Rhino (Black Rhino, Javan Rhino, and Sumatran Rhino) are critically endangered.  The West African Black Rhino was one of four subspecies of the critically endangered black rhino, there are now three populations left, and all are in extreme danger.  The other two species of rhino, White Rhino and Indian Rhino, are near threatened (White Rhino), and vulnerable to extinction (Indian Rhino).

Today in Europe, the "hunting" of migratory songbirds is driving a plurality of species into danger.  Shooting songbirds off of power-lines is a popular pastime in parts of Eastern Europe.  In central and Western Europe similar practices are common.

Commercial over-fishing continues to endanger a number of economically important species.  Some tuna species are threatened.  The list of threatened fish stocks is too vast to begin to touch on here.

Out of the five extant rhino species, the White Rhino is doing the best with a population of over 17,000.  The white rhino is split into two subspecies, the Northern and Southern,  There are 5 Northern White Rhinos in the world.  All the rest of the white rhinos are the Southern White Rhinos.

What is to be done?

So why has the Southern White Rhino done so well despite heavy poaching?  The answer might surprise you, the reason that the Southern White Rhino is doing so well is actually due (in large part) to regulated sport hunting.

A century ago there were 50 Southern White Rhinos.  Today there are an estimated 17,460.  A big part of what helped the white rhino recover was regulated big game hunting.  In 2007 foreign big game hunters spent an average of more than $10,000 per hunter on their hunts, and that number does not include travel and accommodations.  More than $200 MILLION was pumped into the African economy for the opportunity to kill African Big Game.  And that is why sport hunting actually helps preserve species.

(I've actually written another blog post on this topic, you can find it here)

People being willing to spend huge sums of money to kill exotic animals creates an economic incentive to protect populations.  If you live where there are dangerous megafauna, say man-eating lions, you are not likely to be inclined to protect them if all they do is kill your family, compete with/kill your livestock, and in general make your life harder.  But if rich foreigners are willing to spend lots of money to kill those same animals, then there is a reason to not allow them all to die.

Eco-tourists are not likely to pay $10,000 dollars for the chance to take a picture of a rhino, on top of travel and accommodations, but hunters will pay $10,000 for the chance to shoot at one.  In a mind boggling (to me at least) twist of irony, the most effective defense against poachers has been people who want to live out their African Killing Safari Dreams.  Indiscriminate hunting wiped out one of the most numerous vertebrate species in Earth's history, and drove numerous other species to the brink or fully into extinction, and now sport hunting is helping to reverse the trends in some cases.

The value of a rhino horn on the black market is up over $60,000 today.  The price has skyrocketed over the past decade as populations around the world have collapsed.  It takes a pretty hefty price tag to offer an economically valid alternative to poaching when that is the case.  The healthy populations of African megafauna also attract more eco-tourists, but most people need something more concrete than the trickle-down economics of tourist money spent on hotels and trinkets to convince them not to make a quick years salary by going on an illegal hunting trip.

Hunting:  Not just good for Africa

The phenomenon of hunters preserving species is not limited to Africa.  Here in the US, hunters have been hugely important to the preservation of wildlife.  To spare myself some labor, I'll just go ahead and quote myself:
"let's take a look closer to home.  If you enjoy seeing wildlife, and you live in the lower 48, you should thank a hunter.  There were 12.5 million hunters in the US in 2006.  That was a drop of 1.6 million over the preceding period of 15 years.  That means that less than five percent of the population was hunting.  But that five percent accounted for 75% of the funding for state wildlife agencies.  And that does not factor in Federal Duck Stamps which can be thanked for 5.2 million preserved acres (National Geographic, November 2007).  The Fish and Wildlife Service has a little blurb about this.
In the US we have lots of numbers being tracked.  One number that the US Fish and Wildlife Service tracks is how many people are "wildlife watching participants."  Wildlife watching participants are the people who are out enjoying the wildlife and taking pictures.  Those people number 71 million, and comprise 30% of the population.  Six times as many people are engaging in non-hunting wilderness activities, but they provide only a fraction of the revenue from their actions.  It is nice to imagine that hiking and bird-watching do more to protect species than the slaughter of innocent animals, but it is a pretty lie."
Five percent of the population in the US pays for 75% of state wildlife agencies.  Hunters, an extreme minority in the US, provide three times as much money for wildlife management as the other 95% of the population.  It's pretty staggering, and that only counts the governmental funding side of wildlife management.

Additionally non-governmental groups like Ducks Unlimited have had a huge impact on the preservation of migratory waterfowl.  Those types of hunting focused organizations have conserved millions of acres of habitat, and have often found innovative ways to do so.  Things like buying small areas of land that contain key habitats like ponds, or working with developers to find ways to mitigate the impact of development.

This is not to say that non-hunting conservancy organizations do not also have a profound impact.  I'm having trouble finding the numbers, but I do believe that the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy have both managed to preserve more total acreage than Ducks Unlimited.  Plus environmental groups are also active in wildlife preservation lobbying, but the out-sized contribution of pro-hunting conservation groups in relation to the population of hunters is pretty staggering.

You don't need to hunt to help preserve species, and god knows that history shows the dangers of unregulated hunting, but if we want to have animals like bears, lions, elephants, and rhinos in this world, along with species like swans, cranes, moose, and musk ox, hunters are an important part of the solution.  But it is not enough to simply say "hunting good."  Indiscriminate, unregulated, and industrial hunting (and fishing) continues to drive species to extinction.  Careful governmental regulation and societal stewardship is vital.  This is not a case where an unregulated free market is a good idea.  Hunters are a key piece of conservation efforts, and can be instrumental on a global scale, but that can only be true with responsible regulation.

Just some things to bear in mind if you like animals.


  1. I understand how you feel about animals. I see so much habitat destruction here in Florida. The American's have slowed down having children I believe wanting to preserve the wilderness. Now our President is inviting illegals to overrun us like a plague.

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