Saturday, July 3, 2010

July 3, 1844 – Great Auks Saved

On Eldey, a small island off the coast of Iceland, three men approached the last known colony of Great Auks. The maritime birds had once been populous to the millions in the northern Atlantic, but increased predation by polar bears, the introduction of rats, and hunting by humans colonizing the New World had devastated their numbers. With so few left, museums became interested in specimens, which only increased hunting and the near-disappearance of the bird as they became more valuable.

Jón Brandsson, Sigurður Ísleifsson, and Ketill Ketilsson at first intended to collect the birds simply for the bounty museums offered, but a thought stopped them. Killing the birds now would make a quick profit. Keeping the birds alive meant that they controlled the world market on Great Auks.

Though not easily done, the men managed to herd and catch the birds, even protecting the egg that the parents shared in incubating. After painstaking months and several years in which the men often questioned their decision, they finally grew up a domesticated Great Auk flock, selling off a few to further their investments. Museums and zoological gardens fell over themselves competing to buy birds from the small, but blossoming, company.

As word spread of the Icelanders' scheme, other companies started up with the hopes of cashing in on preserving rare animals. Quagga ranches opened in southern Africa, Tasmanian and Caspian Tigers were guarded in Australia and Asia, respectively, and the enterprising Ohioan Wright brothers were among the many to build rookeries for passenger pigeons before ultimately returning to their bicycle shop with their own dreams of flight.

Profitability in conservation continues to this day with parks stretching over the world for safaris, jungle hiking, and collecting new and exotic pets to take home.

In reality, the three men killed the birds by strangulation and crushed the egg. A Great Auk was said to be sighted off the coast of Newfoundland in 1852, but no further sightings have occurred, leading scientists to declare the bird extinct. While lost among the living, many preserved Great Auk specimens can be found in museums.

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