Hunting has been an important contributor to extinction of certain species. A great example is the disappearance of the passenger pigeon from North America. The passenger pigeon was known widely for its enormous populations. Flocks sometimes took three days to pass over a single spot. An estimation claims that over 300 million birds passed every hour. The beating of their wings could be heard six miles away. Containing as many as 2 billion birds, these flocks made nests in long, narrow colonies forty miles long and several miles across. Their droppings would pile so thick that all herbs, shrubs, and trees in the area were killed.
As time passed, the human population increased, and soon railroads and homes paved over the wild forests. Market hunters could now ship the birds to commercial trade centers. Forests were cut down. Hunters devised ways of killing large numbers of the birds, including suffocation by burning grass or sulfur, poisoning by alcohol-soaked grain, striking down by long sticks, blasting with shotguns, or netting (after which their heads were crushed with pincers). One device used a "stool pigeon," a decoy bird with its eyes sewn shut, tied to a perch to capture them.
The decrease of the passenger pigeon was tremendous and amazingly fast. By the 1880s their numbers were trickling away all over North America. In 1878 one individual alone shipped three million birds from the bird's last reserve. The last wild passenger pigeon was seen in Michigan eleven years later, and Martha, the last captive passenger pigeon, passed away at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. Surprisingly, hunting was not what killed the birds in the end. They had ceased to provide good profit since their huge flocks vanished. However, the formation of huge flocks had been essential to the pigeon's survival, and when their populations became too small to maintain large breeding colonies, other factors like nesting failures, inbreeding, and deaths from predation pushed the species over the edge and into extinction. However, it was overhunting and overhunting alone that took away the pigeon's natural lifestyle, so much that they were unable to recover from their population demise. In the end, it was still hunting that did them in.
The history of the American Bison is another example of overhunting. Previously, the bison population was estimated to be 30 to 40 million individuals. Their huge herds covered the plains. But by the early 1830s, eastern U.S. populations were hunted to extinction, and herds in Oregon were gone by 1850. Today, only the northern Wood Bison still exists in relatively large numbers in Canada.
The arrival of settlers from Europe and the expansion of railroads triggered the decline. Professional hunters shot the animals, taking their tongues and hides and leaving the carcasses to rot. Their white, bleached bones were then collected and shipped away for use as fertilizer. Between 1870 and 1875, 2.5 million bison were killed annually. In 1883, the last significant herd, with around 10,000 members, was done away with. By 1900, only 500 Plains Bison remained.
As perilous as its plight may sound, the bison was lucky. It was saved from extinction because humans finally passed legislation to protect it. Today, there are perhaps 25,000 animals in North America, but only in parks and private herds. No prairie bison exist in the wild.
Today, some endangered species are still hunted for food. If the prey is rare (for example the Chinese Giant Salamander) or the hunting becomes widespread, populations and species are wiped out forever. Sometimes wildlife is affected by unusual political or economic circumstances. In 1979 Uganda, Tanzanian troops massacred wildlife in Ruwenzori national Park, one of Africa's most bountiful game reserves. The meat was purchased by Ugandan businessmen. About 30% of the park's 46,500 large animals had been killed, including 6,000 hippos, 5,000 Uganda Kob, 2,000 buffalo, 400 Topi, 100 elephants, and 70 lions. A similar thing occurred when the Islamic Republic in Iran was established. Many of the animals that had been protected during the Shah's regime had become tame, and were easily killed by people. In other countries, meat is sometimes in such short supply that animals are hunted down for food. The animals of the Kyzyl-Agach Reserve on the Caspian Sea have witnessed assaults by army officers operating from helicopters, all-terrain vehicles, and even tanks. A military division stationed near Lake Baikal reportedly used heat-seeking missiles to hunt deer. Not surprisingly, there remains little wildlife in the area.
Hunting does not necessarily need to be prohibited altogether, but a certain sympathy for the animals can be kept in mind. It is fortunate that many hunters are also conservationists - a fact that should be recognized. It is something from which we could all benefit.