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Essay: Man-made Extinctions

When the first Europeans arrived in North America there were some 60 million bison (commonly called buffalo) roaming the grasslands and plains. There were herds from Great Slave Lake to Mexico and from the Rockies to the Atlantic. Yet even by the time the pioneers in Canada and the US started crossing the plains, in wagons pulled by oxen, that number had dwindled to about 20 million, the result of not only white hunters, but the adaptation of the horse by Plains Indians - as they called them at the time.



But it took only another forty or so years to exterminate those wondrous beasts almost entirely. The reason? Well, there were more than one. Partly it was the big Anglo-American cattle companies that wanted the land, also the buffalo robe was in fashion in Europe and the East, but a purposeful strategy was to deprive the Native Plains Indians of their source of food. In other words to subjugate them, or make them extinct.


A bounty was placed on bison and it was open season on buffalo. The newly arrived trains had passengers hanging out of windows blasting at bison with carbines and often pistols, just as John Ford portrayed it in the movies. Men like Canadian-raised Bat Masterson and the Earp brothers had spent their early careers shooting and skinning buffalo.


While the extinction of the buffalo was intentional, humans have been responsible for eradicating species for at least the last 10,000 years. North America was home to horses and big game animals, and Europe had lions, elephants and the like (there has been some recent recovery in Western European wolf and bear populations, which were wiped out by the 18th century). Lebanon was once a forest of cedar; now there are merely a few hectares left. Often these specie and habitat losses were due to human expansion on the environment.


While the human population doubled from the mid-1950s to 2000 - not even fifty years in the life of a baby-boomer - few Western leaders have remarked on the cause and effect of population on diminishing food resources, or on wildlife. Western fishing fleets wiped out the Grand Banks' cod years ago, and now other fish species are disappearing at alarming rates due to the efficiency of modern fishing ships and drift nets.


In fact, it is the efficiency of much of the technology in agribusiness, which is further destroying wild plant species; fish farming, which affects the wild salmon runs; and the cutting down of forests for cattle ranches, or to grow plantation crops that is threatening wildlife and their environment throughout the world.


Are these current extinctions intentional? Well, if we know about them then surely our great-grand-children (should we be lucky to have them survive) will say they were just because we did not stop them.


Overpopulation puts terrible strains on ecological resources. Predictions of 9 billion by 2050 is optimistic, especially when we can't feed 6 billion (although factors such as imperialistic style wars, spending billions on military, and that less than one percent own most of the world's wealth are also responsible). However, the Earth can only support about 2 billion humans at the level of most North Americans. Scientists at Dalhousie Univeristy (Halifax, Canada) predicted in 2006 (Science magazine) that all commerical fisheries will collapse by 2048 if marine biodiveristy is not protected, and endangered fisheries are closed. What is needed, however, is a world-wide commitment to doing so.


Unfortunately, the mind-set of Western elites see 9 billion possible consumers, rather than the devastation that will do to the planet's wildlife. To protect that wildlife and their habitat, we, as a species, need to control our populations with programs such as free birth-control, free world education, promotions to combat religious dogma, and rationing our use of all resources, be it energy or food. Just getting the archaic religions to condone birth control will be a miracle. The irony, of course, is that those religions may cause the very end they prophesy. An end not with a bang, but with a whimper.