This week we had a very sad anniversary: Exactly one hundred years ago, on September 1, 1914, the last passenger pigeon in the world, named Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo.
Scientists estimate that there were three to five billion passenger pigeons in North America when the Europeans first arrived. It was the most abundant bird on the continent. More than a quarter of all birds were passenger pigeons.
Relentless hunting by humans was the cause for their demise. Pigeons served as cheap food for slaves and the poor. After a slow decline through the beginning of the 19th century, the collapse became catastrophic between 1870 and 1890. The populations never recovered, and the last pigeon died in 1914.
Pretty much nobody alive today has ever seen this bird.
We are doing the same today to elephants. There are only about 600,000 African elephants and 30,000 to 50,000 Asian elephants alive today. Already 20% of all elephants are in captivity. It is estimated that there were 1.3 million elephants in the world in 1979. So in 35 years, we have cut the population in half.
Conservationists estimate that in the last three years 100,000 elephants were killed by poachers. This is up sharply from about 20,000 a year only a few years ago.
To put this into perspective:
Poachers are killing about four elephants an hour right now, 24 hours a day, every day, every year.
And it’s all about the ivory. In most parts of the industrialized world, ivory is tightly controlled or even banned now. However, in China, ivory carving is deeply rooted in tradition and massive amounts of ivory are still being consumed for that purpose. Newly rich Chinese love to shower each other with gifts of elaborately carved pieces of ivory.
But even in the United States, we don’t all agree. Obama has recently faced opposition from, believe it or not, the National Rifle Association. If ivory can’t be sold, then guns or rifles with ivory inlays in the handles, could also not be sold. So the NRA opposes the initiative.
The insanity of it all is mind-numbing. If the killing goes on at “only” the current rate, there won’t be any elephants left in 20 years. Like any population, once it is small enough, it can no longer sustain itself and it will collapse. We may be the last generation that can still witness live wild elephants.
Then what are the Chinese going to carve? Then what are we going to inlay into our rifle butts?
Unlike the burning of fossil fuels, which we can’t just stop overnight, we could easily just stop buying ivory. Cold turkey. The killing would stop overnight.
But it doesn’t. And just like there are no more passenger pigeons, there will soon be no more elephants.