February 15, 2017

Lessons from the Catwoman: Extinction and resilience of Amazonian fauna [exerpt from SAPIENS]

Francisco Evangelista, a Paumari Indian who grew up along the Piranha River within the Purus River basin in the Brazilian Amazon, tells a tale from his boyhood about a pelt hunter who went mad from his own excess. Speaking in backwoods Portuguese, Evangelista—who was raised by a rubber tapper whom he called patrão (“boss”)—recalls the day he and the patrão came upon this commercial hunter in distress.

“My boss found [the pelt hunter] on the river bank by a whole herd he had just killed, must have been 12 or 15 peccaries skinned and left to rot,” Evangelista recounts. “We had seen two more herds he had slaughtered a little farther up the river. He was crazy, scared, shaking, screaming about how the jaguars and peccaries were coming to get him because he had killed so many. We took him in our boat but he kept screaming and going crazier and crazier till finally he died, right in front of my eyes,” Evangelista says. “Our people know you can’t just go killing animals like that. It’s perverse. And the forest has its guardians.”

Hunting by local forest-dwelling people in the Amazon for subsistence and commercial purposes has long been considered by many conservationists to be a major threat to biodiversity conservation. In the 1990s, conservationists warned that unbridled hunting could result in “empty forests”—places where trees remain but large animals are eerily absent, hunted out by local people... But a recent study published in Science Advances analyzing historical data on commercial hunting throughout the 20th century tells a different story, showing that many terrestrial Amazonian species have proven more resilient than most experts expected... 

"The jaguar-fur suit worn by Catwoman in the 1966 film Batman: The Movie helped drive the trend..."
The international trade in Amazonian animal hides gradually increased after the collapse of the "Rubber Boom" in 1912, then experienced its first peak during World War II when the U.S. again sought wild rubber from the Brazilian Amazon after the capture of Malaysian rubber plantations by the Japanese. The influx of tens of thousands of rubber tappers meant more hunters in the forest taking advantage of a secondary income stream. The 1960s saw a second peak of Amazonian animal hide exports as exotic furs came into fashion in Europe and the United States. The jaguar-fur suit worn by Catwoman in the 1966 film Batman: The Movie helped drive the trend...

At least 23 million wild animals were killed for their pelts and skins in the Amazon during the heydey of commercial hunting in the 20th century.

But apart from the white-lipped peccary, terrestrial animal populations were surprisingly resilient in the face of all that hunting. In contrast, aquatic species like the giant river otter, black caiman, and manatee showed rapidly dwindling export numbers during the age of commercial hunting, despite steadily rising prices—proof that their population had collapsed under hunting pressure. The result was local extinction in aquatic and semiaquatic habitats—an “empty river” scenario… [but not] the “empty forest” scenario that some experts predicted.

Continue reading the full article in SAPIENS by Glenn Shepard and Emma Marris

Based on the paper "Empty forest or empty rivers? A century of commercial hunting in the Amazon," published in Science Advances 2(10).