Archaeological records suggest that prehistoric humans contributed to the plight of many endangered animals that went extinct, especially as humans moved to new territories. In recorded history, the first endangered species known to be brought to extinction by human activity was the flightless Dodo bird from Mauritius, which was last seen alive in the 1660s, according to the BBC.
As CNN explains, human patterns of resource use may be behind Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction. For human populations to thrive over long periods of time, they must learn to live in harmony with their environment. Achieving this balance is more important than ever.
The conservation movement
In the recently published book “Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction,” acclaimed science journalist Michelle Nijhuis covers the history of the modern effort to save animals from extinction. Beginning in the late 1800s, Nijhuis shed light on the work of people who “often did the wrong thing for the right reasons and the right things for the wrong reasons”.
Much of this conservation effort began with Americans and white Europeans expanding into new territory using guns and new technology. Their treatment of the environment was significantly different from that of the resident indigenous people, who generally sought to preserve natural resources for future use.
In contrast, the peer-reviewed journal Religions describes how Americans in the 1800s embraced “manifest destiny.” It was the belief that white Americans were destined by God to conquer the territories of North America, from sea to sea. The center of the continent was home to around 30 million bison, which provided a reliable source of protein, fur and leather for indigenous peoples. Once the railroads allowed for easy transportation of goods, white Americans slaughtered these herds for fur and leather, leaving the carcasses to rot. As Nijhuis explains, this decimation of the bison was encouraged, with President Grant’s Home Secretary stating that it would “confine the Indians to smaller areas and force them to abandon their nomadic customs” so that they could be more easily controlled.
The unlikely buffalo hero was a taxidermist, who traveled to Montana in 1888 to slaughter some of the few remaining bison for the Smithsonian Museum. Nijhuis writes that after seeing these massive creatures in real life, he had become a strong advocate for the preservation of this endangered species. He pulled several specimens for display at the museum and also brought back live bison for public display. These and other efforts have convinced lawmakers and the general public to save the Great American Bison, which is considered the first endangered species to be intentionally saved by human action.
Many organizations have been created specifically to prevent the extinction of other charismatic species. The Audubon Society was founded in 1905, the Conservatory of Nature in 1951 and the World Wide Fund for Nature in 1962, as Nijhuis points out. She writes that, without the work of environmentalists, “there would probably be no bison, no tigers and no elephants; there would be few or no whales, wolves or egrets.
The unintended consequences of human activity
In the 1930s, conservationists began to realize that conserving species meant conserving their habitat, including breeding grounds, nesting areas, foraging sites, and migration routes. For many species, this requires an international effort and understanding the unintended consequences of human activity. For example, the Science History Institute describes how the highly effective insecticide DDT in the 1960s was found to be harmful to many other animals, including the iconic bald eagle.
The influence of human activity on plants and animals is not yet fully understood. As an example, Yale Environment 360 explains that it’s not entirely clear why bee populations have declined, but our quality of life depends on these pollinators performing their function in the ecosystem. Specimens kept in a museum or a small population at the zoo would clearly not be enough. To preserve our natural heritage, species must thrive in their natural environment and endangered animals must be protected.
These goals are inextricably linked to the preservation of natural habitats and the reduction of human-induced climate change. Through technology and research, it is quite possible to develop and apply techniques to ensure clean water, air and soil for all living creatures while providing energy. and the other resources humans need to keep pushing the limits of what is possible.
Are you interested in science and innovation? We are too. Check out Northrop Grumman’s career opportunities to see how you can participate in this fascinating time of discovery.