Throughout history humans have wiped out animal populations. Have we learned from our mistakes? It seems not, with creatures from a songbird to pangolins and bluefin tuna now facing extinction by way of the dinner table
4 Jul 2018
A 225kg, two-metre flightless Australian bird, the Genyornis newtoni, was eaten to extinction 50,000 years ago. “We consider this the first and only secure evidence that humans were directly preying on now-extinct Australian megafauna,” says Gifford Miller, the associate director of CU-Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. “We have documented these characteristically burned Genyornis eggshells at more than 200 sites across the continent.”
The majority of Australia’s megafauna, including a two-tonne wombat and 500kg kangaroo, also disappeared soon after the arrival of humans.
We all know about the dodo, the flightless bird with no natural predators that was discovered on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius in 1507 and was extinct by 1681. Sailors hunted them for meat or indiscriminately killed them, and rats ate their eggs.
Steller’s sea cow was discovered in the Bering Sea in 1741 and gone by 1768. They were enormous, docile, manatee-like marine creatures that couldn’t submerge, and they fell victim to seal hunters.
Passenger pigeons were once numbered in the billions in North America, and their migrating flocks would darken the sky for days. Enter the European settlers, and the birds were totally gone by the early 1900s.
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According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of endangered species, 1,414 species of fish, or 5 per cent of the world’s known species, are at risk of extinction. A study on bushmeat has shown that 301 mammals are at risk from hunting. This includes 168 primates, 73 hoofed animals, 27 bats and 12 carnivores. There are also 21 rodents and 26 marsupials on the list.
China is moving from being the world’s biggest producer to being the world’s biggest consumer, and its appetite for exotic foods is unmatched. The yellow-breasted bunting is being driven to extinction because diners in southern China refuse to stop eating the songbird, despite the threat of large fines. Locals believe eating it can boost sexual vitality and detoxify their bodies. It was put on the endangered list, but this has done nothing to stop its numbers falling drastically.
Here are four other species that are facing extinction by way of the dinner table.
Pangolins are nocturnal mammals that eat ants and termites. They are the only mammals with keratin scales and they can emit a harmful chemical similar to a skunk. All eight species of pangolin are threatened with extinction. Four are vulnerable, two are endangered and two are critically endangered.
In Africa they are hunted for food and traditional medicine. Unfortunately, they are also a delicacy in southern China and Vietnam. There’s an unfounded belief in East Asia that ground-up pangolin scales can stimulate lactation, cure cancer and asthma.
It is believed that more than one million pangolins have been illegally trafficked in the past year, making it the world’s most trafficked animal.
All pangolin species are protected and there is an international ban on trade. This rarity, sadly, only pushes the price up, and the continued illegal trade is annihilating their numbers.
2. Bluefin tuna
Perfectly evolved as a predator, the bluefin is one of the fastest fish in the ocean and can hit speeds of more than 60 kilometres per hour when hunting. The Atlantic bluefin grows up to 4.6 metres long and weighs up to 680kg. Bluefin species range from vulnerable to critically endangered. The increase in demand for sushi and sashimi has resulted in rampant overfishing, and despite international agreements and convention, its numbers are dropping.
The fish is being farmed to alleviate the pressure, but bluefin tuna grow very slowly, so large fish fetch very high prizes, especially in Japan. Because tuna migrate over long distances and hunt in the mid ocean, they aren’t protected by countries’ exclusive economic zones and fishing quotas.
3. Chinese giant salamander
It grows to nearly two metres and weighs up to 50kg, and is the largest amphibian on the planet. It is (yes, you guessed it) considered a delicacy in China and is being used (yes, again) in traditional Chinese medicine. Its family can be seen in fossil records going back more than 170 million years, but today it is critically endangered.
The population has declined by 80 per cent over three generations.
It is heavily farmed in China – in 2011 there were reportedly 2.6 million salamanders in farms in Shaanxi province alone, compared with the wild population for the whole country of 50,000. Farming brings its own problems, including the spreading of viruses to the wild population and the pollution of rivers.
Their fossil record dates back 200 million years to the Triassic era. During their time on earth, they have survived two, possibly three major events that wiped out a lot of the planet’s life.
Most species of sturgeon are at risk of extinction today. The Beluga sturgeon has been overfished for its eggs (caviar), which are considered a delicacy and command ridiculously high prices.
The emergence of China as a wealthy consumer could be the beginning of the end of the sturgeon. It has been projected by the China Sturgeon Association that China will consume 100 tonnes of caviar every year by 2020, accounting for one-third of the world’s total. China also produces one third of all the world’s caviar.
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service banned the importation of Beluga caviar from the Caspian Sea in 2005. A year later the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species suspended all trade. The following year, the trade ban was partially lifted. The fish is listed as critically endangered. It takes 20 years to reach maturity, and harvesting the eggs necessitates killing the fish.