Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Empire of Extinction

Ryan Jackson Jones, Empire of Extinction: Russians and the North Pacific’s Strange Beasts of the Sea, 1741-1867

As the Russians spread east, across the rim of the North Pacific, from Kamchatka across to the Aleutian Island chain in the 18th and 19th centuries, they created a wave of extermination for the fur-bearing animals of the region. The Russians wiped out huge numbers of sea otters. In fact, the animal never recovered from the hyper-killing of 1749-1750, but it did not go extinct. The same could not be said of the sea cow, which vanished from the earth sometime in the late 1760s. As Jones points out, the sea cow was already in trouble before the fur-greedy Russians showed up and wiped them out. As global temperatures warmed in the aftermath of the little ice age, the sea cow headed north (it had ranged as far south as Baja California), huddling on a cluster of islands in the North Pacific. The last recorded sighting of a sea cow occurred in 1766. It is hard to say when the species went extinct because it would be another thirty years before the Cuvier introduced the idea of animal extinction. In 1802 Martin Sauer postulated that the sea cow had gone extinct within a couple of years of the last confirmed sighting.  

Naturalists were in an uneasy position in the Russian imperial expansion. Mostly made up of non-Russians, they were critical of an empire they considered somewhat mickey mouse. On the other hand, the Russian rulers were their bosses who demanded positive affirmation about the grandeur and vastness of their empire. Wanting to play on the same stage as the French and English, the Russians wanted to appearance of science to give them some enlightenment credibility as a modern state, but they were not terribly interested in hearing what the naturalists had to say. Moreover, the secretive and suspicious Russians did not want scientists in their employ spreading information outside of the borders, clearly demonstrating a lack of understanding of the value of cooperative, transnational science. So much for appearances. Ironically, when the consequences of dramatic fur-bearing population decline were obvious – read, tax revenues from skins shrunk dramatically – conservation measures were implemented without even consulting naturalists.

Like the French and English in east North America, the Russians ensnared native peoples (Yakut, Kamchadal, Aleut) into their market network. The new imperial overlords assessed a tribute to their colonial peoples that was payable in furs. This was only the tip of the iceberg, like every other native population in North America, the people of the North Pacific experienced devastating epidemics with the arrival of Europeans. The Aleuts suffered a 50%-80% mortality from disease. As their population declined and their environment degraded, they became more reliant on the money they made market hunting to feed their families. As fur bearing animals became increasingly difficult to find, Russian overlords sent their native hunters on longer and more dangerous missions, causing yet more stress on their society.

I checked Empire of Extinction out merely to look at how he covered the fur seals of the Pribilof Islands. The cause of the fur seal was close to William T. Hornaday’s heart, and he ardently fought for their protection between1909-1920 against what could be called the scientific establishment led by David Starr Jordan. For more on Hornaday’s fur seal conservation campaign check out The Most Defiant Devil, or his digitized scrapbooks online at the Wildlife Conservation Society.  Despite my initial limited interest in this book, I found Empire of Extinction to be an enjoyable read that really pulled me in, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the history of the environment or wildlife in particular, especially to American historians looking for a little perspective on what was happening outside of our borders.   

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