Extinction and Life and Death on Planet Earth Part 2

About the variety of life that has lived on planet Earth, the species that today are threatened with extinction.


Among the numerous forms of animal life that have become extinct within recent times is the passenger pigeon that crowded U.S. skies a mere century and a half ago; the greak auk that furnished food and feathers to the early explorers of the North American Atlantic coast; and the heath hen that New Englanders began to "save"--too late--around 1900. Other lately departed creatures are the Eskimo curlew, the West Indian seal, the South African quagga (a desert horse), the Alaskan Steller's sea cow, the California giant grizzly bear, the Labrador duck, and the dodo bird of the Indian Ocean. Some of these, notably the dodoes, were too innocent to hide from man the hunter. Others were wiped out as humans changed the environment around them. The American bison, more usually called buffalo, were almost totally eliminated by the same kind of mass killings ("big hunts") that had eliminated the passenger pigeon. A few precariously survive.

The "future fossils" club is a large one, with a growing membership of endangered species. Organizations like the World Wildlife Fund are seeking preserves where these species may be protected from further onslaughts by human hunters. Americans are sentimental about the endangered bald eagle, our national symbol, about the last of the whooping cranes, and even the California condor, the largest land bird in America. A great effort is being made to raise and set free peregrine falcons. During the fall of 1974, a pair was set free and began dining on pigeons nearby. A mysterious phone call was placed asking, "What are you going to do about those terrible killer birds?" just before they were shot by a human hunter.

The North American timber wolf was long regarded as man's most dangerous and wiliest wilderness opponent. Today he's become an endangered species, and many of his former enemies have changed sides. James Oliver Curwood, who wrote great wilderness books in the early 1900s, put away his gun and took the side of the wolf in the 1920s.

Key deer, the kit fox, desert bighorn, sandhill cranes, and black-footed ferrets are among the many rare and endangered species in America today. Worldwide, there are such exotic creatures in trouble as the Asiatic lion, Indian tiger, Javan one-horned rhinoceros, and a genus of bird in New Zealand, the Notornis, that may or may not be already defunct.

Whales, earth's biggest creatures, are in special danger. Five species--the blue, humpback, gray, bowhead, and right--are now protected. But the Russians and Japanese--who still pursue sei, minke, and sperm whales--have not yet agreed to stop, though the 1974 meeting of the International Whaling Commission was the most rancorous conference in the 27 years of its existence. Citing the overwhelming vote to end whaling altogether, taken at the 1973 UN environmental conference in Stockholm, the U.S. representative pleaded for at least a 10-year moratorium. The whale is quite likely to move on soon from the "endangered" category to fossildom.

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