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The Extinction of Species

Passenger pigeon (image assumed in public domain)

Two hundred years ago in North America there lived a bird called the passenger pigeon. At that time it was one of the most common birds in the world; there were thought to be 3 to 5 billion passenger pigeons. From 1860 to 1880 this bird was almost completely exterminated by hunting. By 1890 the bird had become rare and it was protected in several states. This protection was too late. The last wild passenger pigeon was shot in 1900 and the last passenger pigeon of all died in a zoo in 1914. The passenger pigeon had been exterminated. When all the individuals of a species have died, the species is said to be extinct.

Dodo (image assumed in public domain)

In 1598 Portuguese sailors discovered a flightless bird on the island of Mauritius. The birds did not try to hide from the sailors since they had never encountered humans before. This made it easy to kill. The sailors called the bird the dodo (which is Portuguese for stupid or simple). By 1681 the dodo was extinct. All of them had fallen prey to human hunters or the carnivores, such as dogs, which the sailors introduced to Mauritius.

Extinction is forever - the passenger pigeon will never be seen again. Each living organism which humans force into extinction is a tragedy for nature.

Humans sometimes cause the extinction of species deliberately. For example, humans may exterminate a species by hunting it, trapping it or over fishing it. The population of a species may become so small that it cannot recover. The example of the passenger pigeon is not the only one.

Fishermen © Shirley Burchill

Over fishing or excessive hunting by humans can reduce the populations of certain organisms on Earth.


Animals are hunted for their fur, meat or other valuable parts of their bodies.

Elephant, Tanzania © Shirley Burchill

Black rhinoceros, Kenya © Shirley Burchill

Elephants are hunted for their tusks which are carved into ivory jewellery. Rhinoceroses are hunted for their horns which are ground up to make traditional medicines in Asia.

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© Paul Billiet, Shirley Burchill, Alan Damon and Deborah James 2016