We rely on the natural pharmacopoeia locked up in the plant species that are still mostly unknown and in a wide assortment of marine invertebrates. We need the wild congeners of our increasingly homogeneous domestic crops to replenish their genetic diversity. But beyond such practical matters lies a moral question: how can we condone, however passively, the destruction of our fellow species?
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What follows is a short list -- culled from the vast array of potential candidates -- of species likely to be victims of the sixth extinction. It would be wonderful if these predictions proved inaccurate. By confronting what we are doing to the species and ecosystems of our planet, we can perhaps change our consumption patterns and conserve what remains of our ecosystems and species.
If not, however, this field guide to the soon-to-be dead will give the inhabitants of the year some sense of what they're missing. Prairie Dogs: These little ground-dwelling rodents once lived by the millions in extensive colonies on the grasslands of North America. But by the year , black-tailed prairie dogs were being shot by the thousands by "sportsmen" at ranches in the American West, who usually didn't even bother to collect the dead carcasses.
As the hunting practice spread, colonies fell below critical size -- and the entire species suddenly vanished. Pollock: With the love for sushi having gone global around the year , it was easy to predict that the succulent blue-fin tuna would soon succumb to overfishing. Much less obvious was the damage being done to more mundane and abundant commercially harvested fishes. The several species of pollock -- a large, silvery fish that looked much like cod -- were then a staple of the world's marine fisheries.
Known as the poor man's cod, pollock had done yeoman service as a stand-in for that fish, as well as being a component of the crab substitute surimi. But mechanized international fishing fleets in places like the Bering Sea became so efficient -- not only netting but also literally vacuuming the ocean floors clean and discarding most of the other fish and invertebrates sucked up -- that extinction was inevitable. Pollock stocks simply had no opportunity to replenish themselves. Mahogany: It wasn't long before the world was stripped bare of these tropical hardwood trees.
Mahogany, celebrated for the rich, dark color of its wood, had been highly coveted by the makers and owners of fine furniture. Indeed, it was but one of many tropical trees exploited for a specialized use. The dark wood of ebony trees was harvested to make fine piano keys.
Indeed, the losses to the musical world through deforest-ation were manifold: granadilla, which provided the traditional wood for clarinets, vanished, as did the high-quality cane reeds that served as reeds for clarinets, oboes and saxophones. In fact, almost every single tropical hardwood species in demand in the world's markets was wiped out -- not only through direct harvesting but also as a byproduct of the relentless cutting and burning down of tropical forests from Brazil to Borneo.
Truffles: The delights of truffles -- small, fleshy fungi that had been avidly sought after for centuries -- will never be experienced firsthand again. The intense, earthy flavor of these fungi usually found below ground near tree roots, sniffed out by hogs or dogs was matched by their potent mushroomy smell.
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Celebrated particularly by the chefs of Western Europe, truffles never had a chance, since they resisted the most determined attempts to farm them. They were gourmandized to extinction. The African Black Rhinoceros: No mammals conjured up the remote past of early mammalian evolution more vividly than rhinos -- with their ponderous gait, primitive leer and not altogether undeserved reputation for stolid stupidity.
The Third Millennium: Living in the Posthistoric World
Although all five species of rhinoceros on the planet in the year were doomed, the black rhino of the African plains was the first to go. For one thing, its numbers had already dwindled to a precious few. Relentless demand for powdered-rhino-horn aphrodisiacs eventually won out over the captive-breeding programs of zoos and African conservation parks.
The black rhino was a prime example of a type of African megafauna known in 20th-century ecotourism circles as "the big hairies. Alas, we humans eventually returned to Africa with modern hunting technology -- and an even more devastating capacity to convert savannas into pastures. But they soon became the permanent victims of disappearing habitats and disease.
Their intricate social structures provided a role and place for each dog, no two of which looked alike. To watch wild dogs hunt, whether in packs or as dominant loners as often happened in the Okavango ; to see them kill a small impala only to have it wrested away by a pack of spotted hyenas; to see the wizened, almost mummified remains of last night's meal -- such sights are no more.
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