Human beings and animal extinction

When European settlers began exploring North America from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries, they found a land teeming with wildlife that were possible sources of food – from the extraordinarily bountiful cod fisheries of the northeast coast and wild turkeys of the eastern forests, to the massive herds of North American bison on the great plains, to the salmon in the rivers of the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. They also found the land occupied by peoples who had been living there and exploiting its food sources for more than 13,000 years.

The indigenous inhabitants were an obstacle to the development of capitalist economic and social relations that the settlers brought from Europe, because they owned the land they occupied in common. Thus, right from the beginning, a war of extermination against the Native Americans began.

Pile of bison skulls, 1870s

Pile of bison skulls, 1870s

The attitude of the settlers towards the land itself and its animal and plant resources was more complex, but in various ways it intertwined with that war of extermination. The knowledge of New World food plants that the settlers acquired from the Native Americans, including corn, beans, tomatoes and potatoes, transformed their agriculture, not just in North America but back in Europe as well. On the other hand, the wanton slaughter of the great herds of North American bison in the nineteeth century, which reduced their number from at least 30 million in 1800 to the brink of extinction less than a hundred years later, was motivated at least partly by the desire to destroy the principal food supply of the Plains Indians. US Army Colonel Richard Dodge is reported as saying in 1867 “Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”

The abundance of animal life the new immigrants discovered staggers the imagination today. The following is a description of the passing of a flock of passenger pigeons, another important food source for some Indian tribes, written by an English hunter, W. Ross King, in 1860.

“Early in the morning I was apprised by my servant that an extraordinary flock of birds was passing over, such as he had never seen before. … I was perfectly amazed to behold the air filled, the sun obscured by millions of pigeons, not hovering about but darting onwards in a straight line with arrowy flight, in a vast mass a mile or more in breadth, and stretching before and behind as far as the eye could reach.
Swiftly and steadily the column passed over with a rushing sound, and for hours continued in undiminished myriads advancing over the American forests in the eastern horizon, as the myriads that had passed were lost in the western sky. It was late in the afternoon before any decrease in the mass was perceptible, but they became gradually less dense as the day drew to a close…The duration of this flight being about fourteen hours, viz. from four am to six pm, the column (allowing a probable velocity of sixty miles and hour) could not have been less than three hundred miles in length, with an average breadth, as before stated, of one mile.”

passenger pigeons juvenile (L) male (centre) female (R)

passenger pigeons juvenile (L) male (centre) female (R)

The passenger pigeon was the most abundant bird on the North American continent at that time, if not the planet. It is estimated that they made up 25% to 40% of all the birds on the continent, and numbered anywhere from three to five billion individuals at the time of the arrival of Europeans. They ranged across the eastern half of the continent, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Gulf of St Lawrence, nesting in greatest abundance in the regions bordering the Great Lakes. Their huge gatherings were not seasonal migrations but foraging expeditions: they fed primarily on the fruits and nuts of the eastern forests, especially beech, oaks, and chestnuts, tree species which produce heavy crops irregularly, a phenomenon called ‘masting.’ Scientists have estimated from King’s information that this one flock would have contained at least one billion and perhaps as many as three billion birds. Nesting and roosting sites could occupy hundreds of square miles.

This year is the centenary of the beginning of the First World War; it is also the centenary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon. A few weeks after the guns of August, the last living individual of that species died in Cincinnatti Zoo on September 12, 1914, only half a century after King’s incredible sighting. To mark the centenary, interested scientists have formed Project Passenger Pigeon to bring the story of this extinction to greater public knowledge. One product of this is a new book, “A Feathered River Across the Sky – the passenger pigeon’s flight to extinction”, by naturalist Joel Greenberg. It is a poignant and tragic story, and one well worth reading.

shooting passenger pigeons

shooting passenger pigeons

There is no evidence that the extermination of the passenger pigeon was a deliberate act to deprive the Indians who depended on them of their food source as it was with the bison. Passenger pigeons were simply hunted for food and for the market, and the hunt continued until there were no more. Particularly interesting in Greenberg’s book are the accounts of hunters in the last years, as it became clear that the numbers of birds were declining catastrophically. Rather than slowing down and adopt measures to conserve the resource, the hunt for the remaining individuals intensified; sensing that the easy killing was coming to an end, the hunters wanted to participate in the hunt while it was still possible.

If this mentality seems difficult to understand today, it should be remembered in the first place that the idea of species extinction was not popularly understood at that time.

The first European naturalists generally assumed that all the animal and plant species created by God were still in existence. Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, himself a serious amateur scientist and collector of fossils, was familiar with the fossil skeleton of a large elephant-like animal that had been found in Ohio. When he sponsored the expedition by Lewis and Clark that in 1804-06 journeyed overland to the West Coast, he fully expected them to find these animals living somewhere in the west. (It was only in 1800 that the French paleontologist Cuvier (1769-1832) had published a study on the Ohio fossil that established that it was a separate species from both species of elephants alive in India and Africa, and was probably extinct. Cuvier is credited with establishing through his fossil studies the fact of animal extinction, which he explained was a result of natural catastrophes.)

Darwin’s theory of evolution was still hotly contested at the time the bison and passenger pigeons were being hunted to extinction, and nowhere more so than in the United States. Species extinction was a cornerstone of Darwin’s theory, but Darwin considered species extinction to be a relatively rare event. The particular role of human beings in the extinctions of the past was not known, even by Darwin.

Still, imperfect scientific understanding of animal populations and extinction was not the key to the situation. The Native Americans had been exploiting passenger pigeons for food for thousands of years without reducing them to extinction. Greenberg describes the conservation practices of several tribes. For example, most harvested the squabs, or unfledged chicks, but forbade the taking of adult birds at nesting time.

The passenger pigeons were undoubtedly victims of the rapid growth of industrial technology at this time, although not so much the technology of hunting itself. They were killed by all manner of techniques, including shooting, trapping, even being stupefied with noxious sulphur fumes under the nests. “Stool pigeons” were also used: live birds whose feet were tied to a stick that was moved up an down as a pigeon flock flew overhead. On the downward motion, the captive bird opened its wings, and the birds overhead saw what appeared to be a pigeon landing, and were induced to land.   A large proportion was caught by the ancient technology of netting.

Technologically far more significant was the expansion of the railroads, which brought hunters to converge on the roosting and nesting sites from long distances, and the parallel expansion of the telegraph system, by means of which word of the roostings was carried far and wide.

The final nail in the pigeons’ coffin came with the development of refrigerated rail cars in the 1870s, when their numbers were already under threat. For the first time, the freshly-killed pigeons could be transported long distances to the big cities, where they fetched much higher prices than in the localities here the slaughter was being carried out. A national market for pigeon meat was thus established, supplied increasingly by professional hunters.

A competitive market in the products of hunting is by its very nature adverse to conservation. Each seller comes to the market as an individual, responsible for his own actions only. Suppose a hunter sees the decline in pigeon numbers and wants to take some steps to conserve the resource. What would be the point, if their competitors refuse to comply, and gobble up the birds left for conservation by the hunter?  To be effective, conservation measures would require a collective decision binding on all the hunters – which is precisely what the competitive market precludes.

This is what made the slaughter of the pigeons unstoppable, even when the signs of the catastrophe were obvious. The few conservation measures that were put in place were weak, uneven, uncoordinated between different states, poorly enforced, too little, too late. Hunting for the market sealed the doom of the passenger pigeon.

As Greenberg points out, the same logic continues to play out today – out of sight, beneath the surface of the oceans.

orange roughy

orange roughy

I worked as a fish-processing worker for a short period in the 1980s, during the height of the Orange Roughy boom in New Zealand. Orange Roughy is a fish species that lives at great depths; too deep for commercial fishers until the late 1970s. It is also a very good eating fish, commanding premium prices. In the 1970s, improved sonar technology gave commercial fishers a much clearer picture of the sea floor and fish beneath their boats, and at the same time larger trawlers, with powerful motors capable of dragging a trawl net at greater depths were developed. Orange Roughy appeared on the Fish-finder screen.

For a decade huge quantities of this species were hauled from the depths.Orange Roughy used to congregate in great density in a few quite small seamount areas off the Chatham Rise east of mainland New Zealand. A trawler operator told me that often he was trawling within eyesight of other boats.

Worldwide catch of orange roughy

Worldwide catch of orange roughy

The general assumption underlying ‘fish stocks management’ in a capitalist economy is that a newly-exploited species can afford to lose 70% of its original population before management of the stocks becomes an issue. The ‘surplus’ of Orange Roughy was removed rapidly. And still the slaughter continued. This was no petty operation by individual small fishers. The advanced technology required to exploit the resource represented a significant outlay of capital. Capital has its own appetites: capital investment is losing money as long as it is idle. The pressures against restraint were huge, and overcame all attempts to regulate the catch.

In the midst of the carnage an important fact became known: orange roughy, because they live at such great depths, and conditions of low temperature and light, have an extraordinary slow metabolic rate. They mature slowly, and live long. A fisheries scientist told me that most of the medium-sized fish we were processing had taken 20 to 30 years to reach that size. Some fish were over 100 years old. It is now known that they can live up to 150 years. The capitalists of the fishing industry contested these scientific findings, naturally. The carnage continued until almost all the fish were gone.

Historic cod fishing in Maine

Historic cod fishing in Maine

An even more abrupt and catastrophic decline of fish stocks took place in the cod fishery of the American Northeast coast in 1992 following a few years of fishing by giant factory trawlers. Suddenly there were no more fish, and tens of thousands of fishers and fish process workers were thrown out of work. This was the largest industrial closure in Canadian history. Despite outright bans and strict catch limits since then, the cod have not returned. Crab and shrimp have taken their place.

Cod: overfishing followed by collapse.

Cod: overfishing followed by collapse.

The same process is currently being played out with other species, including Patagonian toothfish in the Antarctic waters. New technologies make a species economic to exploit for the first time, and the race to extinction is on. This particular species lives in international waters. If any one state imposed restrictions, others would quickly fill the gap.

Fishing is essentially a kind of hunting, an archaic form of production, and that makes it quite different from other forms of economic activity. New technology applied to agriculture, for example, can actually increase the productivity of the land – through the use of irrigation, fertilisers, improved varieties of crops, etc, more people can be fed from a given piece of land (without necessarily degrading the soil in the process). Not so with hunting. Improved technology applied to hunting does not – can not – improve the productivity of nature, but only the efficiency with which nature’s bounty is scooped up. This adds yet another pressure towards overfishing: steady or even increasing hauls of fish can appear to provide evidence for the continuing viability of the stocks at the current rate of exploitation, when in reality the increasing hauls are only due to the improved technology catching a higher proportion of whatever fish remain.

All these effects are described in detail in “The Unnatural History of the Sea” by Callum Roberts, an outstanding history of the relationship of human economic activity with nature. Roberts records a court hearing in Scotland where hook-and-line fishers were trying to limit the use of the (then) new technology of trawling (dragging a net across the sea floor, scooping up fish with great efficiency, along with their prey species and other unwanted species, and in the process destroying corals, kelp, reefs, shellfish beds etc). The trawlermen argued that the trawl nets were increasing the productivity of the sea by cultivating the sea bed…

However, neither improved technology nor population pressure is the cause of overfishing or overhunting. In the long history of human beings on the planet, the greatest instances of hunting to extinction took place when technology was at its lowest level and human populations were a tiny fraction of what they are today.

reconstructions of woolly mammoth (L) and mastodon (R)

reconstructions of woolly mammoth (L) and mastodon (R)

When human beings crossed the Aleutian land bridge into the American continent just as the last ice age ended and the glaciers retreated, the continent supported a variety of large mammals. As well as woolly mammoth and mastodons, there were American horses, a camel, the sabretooth and other large felines, a tapir, the short-faced bear (twice the size of a grizzly bear), giant 400-kg storks, giant beavers and armadillos and a ground sloth. Almost all became extinct about 13,000 years ago, within a space of about 300 years. The mammoth and mastodon lasted another 200 years, the bear for perhaps another 1000 years.

Explanations for this mass extinction, as well as megafauna extinctions in other parts of the world, are hotly contested, but it seems most likely that the cause was overhunting by the new human arrivals, in this case the Clovis hunters whose distinctive stone spear-tips have been found at sites throughout the United States and Central America, often in association with the remains of these animals. The megafauna extinctions coincide in time and place with the coming of humans in every case. In the Caribbean islands there were no extinctions 13,000 years ago, but the large land mammals (ground sloths and large rodents)  disappeared 6000 years ago, once again coinciding with the arrival of humans.  Isolated animal populations in places never reached by the stone-age hunters lasted thousands of years longer, such as a dwarf woolly mammoth that existed on an island north of Siberia a full 9,000 years after the extinction of mammoths elsewhere, and a remnant population of musk-ox which survived to the present day in the remote Canadian Arctic.



In some islands the megafauna extinction happened more recently, and can be more easily studied. There is no doubt that overhunting by the newly-arrived Polynesians caused the extinction of the primary species of the New Zealand megafauna, the giant moa, about 800 years ago. (For a convincing argument for the human cause of megafauna extinction, see The Eternal Frontier, by Tim Flannery).

How do hunters equipped with nothing but stone-tipped spears kill a mammoth? The answer is: with great difficulty, very inefficiently and wastefully. There is evidence that the small bands of Clovis hunters drove whole herds of mammoth into swamps and off cliffs. It was the very low level of their technology that was the source of their colossal destructiveness in meeting their need for food.


The advance of technology and the application of scientific knowledge to production of the necessities of life, far from being the cause of human destructiveness, is potentially the means for overcoming the destructive effects of human economic activity on nature. Agriculture and stock-raising are – or can be –  far more productive and less destructive than hunting.

But for social labour to free human economic activity from the destructive tendencies of capital, human beings need to take conscious control of not just the techniques of production, but the operation of the productive system itself. In place of production geared to the profit appetites of capital and the blind and anarchic operation of the laws of the market, production must be planned to meet human needs, including the need to preserve maximum diversity of species in nature.

The capitalist class is not just incapable of bringing this kind of economy into existence, it is incapable even of imagining it. Facing its own imminent extinction as a class, it can see no future, and consequently behaves with increasing recklessness towards nature, as it does towards the social consequences of its actions. To the working class, when it inherits this ravaged planet in the not-so-distant future, will fall the responsibility for the stewardship over nature.









4 responses to “Human beings and animal extinction

  1. Pingback: GPJA #497 (3 of 3): International news and analysis – 7/4/14 | GPJA's Blog·

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  4. Pingback: Going the way of the Dodo: four pigeons, three extinctions, and te Tiriti o Waitangi | A communist at large·

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