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Earth in infrared. Coincidentally, what it would look like if rendered uninhabitable.
This is a natural history diary but nothing quite captures the essence of what Humanity is doing to the rest of the living Earth like the Genesis story of Cain and Abel, where one brother killed another. Thus is Cain credited with the invention of murder ... but not the credible alibi. The specific punishment (aka the Curse O Cain) was:

12 When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.
That curse may be nigh for us all, figuratively speaking - the consequences of our own misdeeds against the environment - and against our fellow living creatures.

For we aren't just killing our brethren one by one. We are killing them all. And we are killing the fields on which they (and we) depend for life. In other words, we are slowly killing ourselves and our world.

And the heralds of our own doom are those we have already sent to theirs.

I learned recently that The Japanese River Otter was declared extinct. The both surprised and distressed me. For one, I thought I had a pretty good handle on the imminent extinctions. I was worried about polar bears like a normal person. And I was gratified to learn that justice was served at last over an illegal shooting of a whooping crane. And persistent trouble breeding giant pandas in captivity suggests that the seemingly-but-not-really-cuddly bears may be but one step away from irreversible decline.

The otter extinction news compelled me to scout out what species were at greatest risk of extinction in the coming years. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that all of the above species (the otter aside) aren't in immediate danger.

I was appalled to learn how many species were in line ahead of them. It's a big, big number.

European eel
I actually limited my perusal to (mostly) large vertebrate species...and I found scores of candidates for extinction in a matter of years. Some of the names surprised the hell out of me. For example, I would never have guessed the European Eel was on the verge of dying out in the wild Worse, due to its habit of dashing out to the Sargasso Sea to spawn, is nearly impossible to breed in captivity. Basically, European Eels need a short several thousand-mile swim to get in the mood. Foreplay, it's not just for humans anymore. (Sorry, did I say humans? Perhaps that was over-inclusive. My bad.)

Personally, eel doesn't do it for me as a food but demand for the tough fish meat is quite robust in some circles. Per the link above, consumption in Japan alone is on the order of 100 million kilograms a year - about 100,000 metric tons. Aircraft carriers weigh less. That's some serious sushi.

All kidding aside, European eel has come to supplement the Japanese eel as the source of this staple menu item. Since Euro-eels are apparently fading out the door, the still-common American eel is being recruited for duty... until, one supposes, it too is driven off this mortal coil.

Eels. I had this picture in my head that they were quite common - and they were! But as the sad natural history of the passenger pigeon confirms, vast numbers don't do it when it comes to safeguarding a species against human encroachment.

Then there were the other species, ones I knew that were rare but I had thought were safe in smaller dosage, as it were. I was displeased to learn the Bactrian Camel of the Asian steppes, the leatherback sea turtle, the Chinese giant salamander, the gharial of India and the South's own red wolfwere all in dire threat of getting their existence eviction notices.

Leatherback sea turtle
Chinese giant salamander
And the beat goes on.. the Nubian and Somali wild ass, the giant sable antelope of Angola, several types of lemur in Madagascar and honeycreeper in Hawaii, and last but not least that cute, iconic save-me animal, the Hawaiian Monk Seal. Bad news: It's slowly but surely dying off despite devoted efforts since being declared an endangered species in 1976.
O'u, a type of Hawaiian honeycreeper
Hawaiian Monk Seal
At least there's good news of a kind for the addax, a peculiar type of antelope native to the Sahara. The news: Several ranches in Texas offer you the chance to bag yourself an 'African exotic' trophy:

Hunting is a great way to spend quality time with friends. Just ask Chris and Matt who recently harvested two Addax only 30 seconds apart. Last Friday the temperature was 95 degrees. You would think this would force most sane people in air conditioned house. However, it’s a perfect time to hunt African Exotics. “These Addax gave us quite a hunt”, Chris said. We hunted them for over 2 hours before we found them and then played cat and mouse for another hour. Who said Exotic hunting was easy! After 3 hours and losing 5 pounds we found ourselves undetected from a high vantage point. Chris shoots first sending a 300 WSM to the honey hole. Matt quickly steadies himself and fires a 7 mm mag connecting with the second Addax. Wow, two Addax down in 30 seconds. Nice job guys!

Later that night we feasted on Shrimp, King Crab, Snow Crab, Corn, Sausage and Potatoes and iced cold beer. Matt looked at Chris and said,”MAN….IT DOESN”T GET BETTER THAN THIS!”

It may be tempting to harsh on Texas... but in Africa they hunt the addax from moving jeeps with automatic weapons. Essentially, this is the future of the creature: A game animal, preserved for its value as something that's fun to kill. And it's not the first such creature to exist for the same reason. One you might know of already is the European bison, common as late as the High Middle Ages but by the 1400s it was all but eradicated save for populations in the Caucasus Mountains and the Bialowiecza Forest on what is now the Poland-Belarus border.

World War I-era German troops (Kaiser troops, NOT Nazis) almost punched the bison's clock, killing 600 of 609 animals in the Bialowiecza. About 54 existed in zoos and private preserves elsewhere, none in Poland. It took about 80 years to recover from that disaster. An earlier bout of hunting by conqueror Russia did not do the bison any favors. It's a wonder the species lasted to the 20th Century.

And this is perhaps the risk to 'fun to hunt' species: their entertainment and prestige-when-dead value, especially if they are under official protection. Any relaxation in vigilance invites massacre. Someone will always want to be the one who killed the last of a species.

Perhaps saddest example of that attitude is the ultimate demise of the Great Auk:

The last colony of Great Auks lived on Geirfuglasker (the "Great Auk Rock") off Iceland. This islet was a volcanic rock surrounded by cliffs which made it inaccessible to humans, but in 1830 the islet submerged after a volcanic eruption, and the birds moved to the nearby island of Eldey, which was accessible from a single side. When the colony was initially discovered in 1835, nearly fifty birds were present. Museums, desiring the skins of the auk for preservation and display, quickly began collecting birds from the colony.[67] The last pair, found incubating an egg, was killed there on 3 July 1844, on request from a merchant who wanted specimens, with Jón Brandsson and Sigurður Ísleifsson strangling the adults and Ketill Ketilsson smashing the egg with his boot
We denizens of the 21st century might like to think we are beyond such banal, willful cheerful extirpation of a species for the purpose of trophy-hunting.

Are we? We certainly know more now of the consequences of extinction - the things aesthetic, practical and ethical that we will do without, once our brethren living things are gone. The recent honeybee colony collapse scare - and ongoing problem that may yet wreak global havoc - was a shot across the bow of our own species' dependency on our distant kin, all of whom share ancestry reaching back into the oceans girdling our planet.

And yet we grow, in numbers. In appetite for more, for more per person. We are inconvenienced, even outraged, that someone might suggest we might do without that car, or turn out that light in the now-empty room we just departed, or wear another sweater instead of turn up the thermostat. And don't ever come between a society's appetite for something that requires creating a carcass and then dressing it. Why, that's attacking culture. Thus, whales still die, dolphins and porpoises too. That's why wolves and cougar are shot .. in self-defense, of course... though the behind-the-hand explanation is because as competing predators they kill 'our' prey animals and are therefore pests. (The Eastern Cougar, FYI, is extinct for this reason. If you see a puma in the Appalachians, it's probably a transplant from the Rockies.)

Add to that the guts and glory of killing polar bear, lions, elephants, giraffe (giraffe as big game, that's takes the cake) etc.

But the sport aspect of multi-species genocide is small potatoes. The bigger killer is simply crowding out the other neighbors. Our numbers grow. Our cities grow over marshes, then drain them. We even drain lakes. An unusual salamander called the Axolotl once thrived in central Mexico.

Unfortunately, central Mexico equals metro Mexico City these days. Its two home lakes are gone - one was drained out of existence, the other is so overbuilt it's essentially a network of canals now. The Axolotl, a salamander with no 'adult stage' (it stays a water-breather), has nowhere else to go, and no way to get there. Nor does Mexico City, and the city is a wee big bigger.

Nowhere to go and no way to get there. That describes Humanity's situation in general. We have discovered hundreds (going on thousands) of planets in other star systems. Not one is confirmed Earth-like. And 'earthlike', once we spot one, could cover a wide range of conditions that 'life like us' can't handle well. The air may be too thick or thin. The gravity likewise too great or too meager. There may be insufficient trace elements and compounds without which our metabolism will shut down. There may be excessive quantities of same that provoke allergic reactions. And we're not even to the usual suspects of poisonous trace gases, lack of water and biocontaminants a go-go.

We just don't know yet. And even if we did, even if we spotted from afar a Paradise in the stars...we can't get there. Not 'we', even if we had warp drive. There'd be no 'we' going. Most of us would remain here. Most of us would die with the world we'd hollowed out to make room for ourselves, our homes and our pleasures.

And if the end comes quickly, if any of a hundredscore things go wrong over the next several centuries before we have a prayer of developing viable interstellar travel (or the means to reshape other planets and asteroids into habitats fit for life), we won't even have that consolation that, once again, at least a few of the smart continent-changing two-legged apes with the opposing thumbs got away from the Grim Reaper yet again.

But at least we'd get to back an addax on the trophy ranch and cook shrimp and drink beer and high-five each other before picking up our hats, tipping them to one another in great fellowship, and follow our brethren living creatures in the hollow scene of oblivion.

Originally posted to cskendrick on Mon Dec 10, 2012 at 09:58 AM PST.

Also republished by DK GreenRoots and Science Matters.

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