When prehistoric humans reached Australia some 60,000 to 70,000 years ago, they found a flora and fauna very different from today's. Hippo-sized wombats, giant kangaroos, marsupial lions and a much larger relative of the Komodo lizard thrived on the smallest continent. The vegetation was also greener with more forests. This soon changed; It took a mere thousand years for the big animals, the megafauna to vanish.
Arriving in North America ten to twenty thousand years ago, early humans were greeted by vast herds of giant herbivores. The mammoth species, the giant ground sloth and others were hunted by lions and a variety of other big cats. For Europeans following in Columbus's footsteps there was only one species of buffalo to see. The other one had long since disappeared, along with the glyptodon (a car-sized armadillo shown below) and many other herbivores. Pumas became the largest felines, the packs of dire wolves have been replaced by the grey wolf, and the cave bear was gone.
Source: Heinrich Harder, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1143767
The date of the settlement of Madagascar is disputed, with one study mentioning bones from ten thousand years ago, allegedly showing cut marks by human tools. The most common view is that settlers from Indonesia likely arrived on the island, where at least three species of elephant bird were roaming, between 2,500 and 4,000 years ago. Arab sailors may have encountered the elephant birds, and the shells of their broken eggs can be found even today. Not so the dozens of species of giant lemurs, the giant fossa (a cat-like predator but from a different family), giant tortoises, hippos, crocodiles...
Archaeoindris fontoynontii, a gorilla-sized lemur. Source: Smokeybjb - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11399634
The elephant birds were representatives of those huge avians that were once widespread across the globe, the apex predators for a long time after the dinosaurs went extinct. They could be thought of as the last great dinosaur descendants.
The last of these giant birds were the moas shown above. When the Maoris discovered New Zealand, the last major uninhabited landmass, seven to eight hundred years ago, they encountered nine species of moa. Needless to say, none of them are alive today.
Are you beginning to notice a pattern?
Source: Uweka © https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29077462
Many so-called scientists refuse to acknowledge the large-scale extermination of species by humans. They babble about climate change, dispute that humans were even there at the time and write all kinds of gobbledygook. Obviously, other factors may have added to the extinction of the megafauna, but looking at the long list of cases it is ridiculous to deny that the most significant component was a species that calls itself Homo sapiens. This is backed up by common sense: We fear large predators, such as the growing population of bears in Szeklerland1. At the same time we hunt big herbivores. Early humans were probably not overly choosy and they also ate the predators they killed. They might even have attributed mystical powers to a good cave lion barbecue. But, as the population of predators is always much smaller than that of herbivores, they were not a primary food source. Humans might also have hunted them out of envy, so that there would be more prey left for them.
As far as the size of species is concerned, it's interesting to note that we, on the other hand, have lately been growing like crazy. Not only in numbers, but also in body size. This is apparent even within one generation: Adult children are almost always taller than their parents. When a food-rich habitat opens up, species using the new source begin to grow in size. (In times of climate change or natural disasters, the giants then die out and small creatures repopulate the habitat.) Recent human gigantism may be aided by other factors besides abundant food, such as growth hormones administered to livestock. Or even — of course, this is completely unscientific fantasy — the strange, restless, maniacal energy present in our civilization. We want to fill the world to the brim with ourselves, our constructions, our food plantations.
Surprisingly, it was early humans that had begun a large-scale flora alteration campaign. In Australia, a millennium's worth of strange carbon deposits have been found dating back to the time when humans appeared. They systematically burned the forest, probably to get more grassland where food plants grew and huntable animals lived. It is possible that they also aimed at reducing habitat of dangerous predators. Our specie-mates must have enjoyed the control, the power over stronger creatures, that fire gave them. You may see some similarities between them and today's whipper-snipper swordsmen. In the long run, they managed to turn a large part of the continent into desert unfit for human habitation.
The final stab for the planet’s flora and fauna came from agriculture. According to Daniel Quinn's cult book Ishmael, the story of Cain and Abel symbolizes the struggle between pastoralism and horticulture, the latter of which triumphed, causing increasing swathes of Earth to be ploughed and planted with human crops. It’s not only megafauna that has no place now, it’s all wild species. Some of the clever, adaptable ones squeeze into our cities while the rest are squeezed out for good. There is simply no room for them on the planet.
In the last decade or so the media has been concentrating on climate change as The Major Natural Disaster. This topic deserves an article on its own, but whether or not it is as grave as portrayed, I think species extinction is a bigger problem, and it is no longer just the large animals that are disappearing.
But there is hope.
Today we look up to those peoples (later exterminated or subjugated by Europeans) that lived in harmony with nature. Well, it turns out that the magical, dreaming Australian aborigines, the noble Indians were descended from ancestors just as aggressive as we are. And when they realized that this way of life leads to their doom, they were able to evolve. You could say that this only happened after the giant monitor lizards and the saber-toothed tiger were taken care of. Okay. They're not coming back. But the other species must be preserved if we don't want to meet the fate of the megafauna.
By the way, the gene hackers say that they will bring the mammoth back. They will extract genes from fossils, implant them in the ovum of a related species, the Asian elephant2, which will then carry them to term and bingo! Sensation, TV series, safari park, mammoth rides for only a thousand bucks a minute. Then come dinosaurs... You don't know whether to rejoice or shake your head at yet another level of manipulation. It's quite possible that the bio-tinkerers will manage to knock something together and we'll be able to admire an artificial mammoth. Of course, such a hacked pachyderm would be a far cry a self-sustaining population.
The fact is that re-engineering a living system with millions of participants, many of which we don’t even understand the function of, is beyond our capabilities. But there are millions of ‘ordinary’ creatures still living on the planet. Together we form this wonderful, complex, renewable, self-sustaining super-system called the biosphere, or simply nature. It is our home, our mother, our source of nourishment and healing.
If we've got the boogie and cannot stop growing, how about switching from boring, linear, numerical growth to something else? Maximizing aesthetic value, for example. Or increasing love and harmony. Having a more and more complete experience of spirituality. Enhancing human happiness (not the fake laughs seen in advertisements). Somehow I suspect that there is more excitement and creativity in these endeavors than in GDP or industrial productivity increasing by X%, or the population of Africa growing by Y million. Then the tractors wouldn't have to break up any more virgin fields. We could start leaving nature alone. We could leave room for other creatures.
With microfauna, you can even do this in your garden. You can leave the old trees, and, instead of boring grass, plant bushes with flowers for butterflies, berries for birds, build stone burrows for lizards and so on.
The really big pressure on the biosphere is caused by population growth and overconsumption. The first one in the Third World while the latter mainly in our parts. The culture of obsessive buying, throwing things away, the Object Overload, deserves a separate article. We bury ourselves into stuff, into experiences that money can buy, as a substitute for the lost primary sensations, community, spirituality. The solution is to return to the true sources of pleasure. Then there will be no need for substitutes. No need to build more factories and roads. Nature will be be able to breathe.
“Yes, the people in charge, the ministers and big business owners will have to solve these things!", people think. Well, you can also put some pressure on them. I don't know how to do that, but I have noticed that one of the most effective ways of changing human consciousness is by example. Fortunately the ministers and businesspeople of our lives are ourselves.
OK, I’ll do my part when everyone is. When it becomes normal...
I also noticed another thing. When I focus on ‘What can I do now’ instead of ‘What can others do later”, besides regaining control of my life, amazing things become possible in the world.
German: Szeklerland, Hungarian: Székelyföld, Rumanian: Secuime - a rural, still mostly Hungarian-speaking area in Transylvania.
The Asian elephant's habitat once stretched from the islands of Southeast Asia to Siberia and Turkey. Today, only a small population remains in the wild in a few isolated patches.