Scientists who track the populations of wild animals have recently
come to a startling conclusion: that human beings (Homo sapiens)
are now extinct in the wild.
Why is this such a surprise?
Humans were once the most widely-ranging land mammals in the
world. They ranged over every continent except Antarctica, as well
as virtually every island large enough to support a small population.
But, as with some other species (such as cats, chickens, cattle, etc.),
increasing domesticization brought about a serious decline in wild
human populations. In many areas of the world, wild humans were
considered a threat to the spread of civilization, and, like coyotes
and other species, were often shot on sight as a threat to crops and
livestock. In addition, in some places (Australia, Utah, etc.)
the young of wild humans were captured and raised by already-tamed
human populations. Through such means, populations of wild humans
have been sharply on the decline for the past several hundred years.
Ecologically, this is an unusual case. The species which are most
vulnerable to population decline (from hunting, or pollution, or loss
of habitat, or other factors which can eventually lead to extinction)
are species which occupy highly specialized niches, and top-end
predators (tigers, wolves, etc.); the high amount of biomass which is
necessary to sustain even a single such predator always keeps the
populations of such animals low, low enough that even a small
change in the availability of food can drive these predators to the
brink of extinction. In theory, however, omnivorous top-end predators
(such as bears and humans), due to their greater variety of food
sources, should be much better protected against ecological change.
Indeed, the coyote- a much more adaptable species than
the wolf, which can successfully hunt a much wider range of game,
and can hunt solo or in packs as necessity dictates, have thrived
and even expanded their range despite all human efforts to
exterminate them. That humans, arguably at the top of the world's
food chain, able to take advantage of a wide variety of food
sources, and able to survive in virtually any climate, could have
become extinct in the wild, has been interpreted as a chilling
harbinger of ecological catastrophe.
The causes of human extinction are numerous and difficult to fix;
proposed causes and solutions will likely be hotly debated for many
years to come. I will not touch upon those topics at present.
In the meantime, ecologists are preparing reintroduction programs,
in which small populations of domesticated humans, equipped with
radio-tracking collars so that ecologists can study their movement
patterns, will be released into the wild. Although the exact locations
in which these humans will be released have not yet been
determined, they will likely be areas as isolated as possible from
civilization. In order to avoid conflict with agricultural societies, most
reintroductions will probably occur in mountainous areas. Scientists
warn that, because all released humans will not have grown up in
the wild, initial survival rates will likely be low. Yet they remain
optimistic that, with effort, subsequent releases can help the wild
humans to achieve a viable population.
However, every ecologist warns that, even if stable populations can
be eventually maintained, until the underlying issues of pollution,
habitat loss, and conflict with domesticated human populations can
be somehow solved, wild human populations will always live on the
brink of annihilation.