Photo by Dan Kitwood / Getty Images.
A new article in Newsweek explores an issue that animal advocates have talked about for years: the fact that hunting removes the largest, strongest individuals from the population. Instead of survival of the fittest, scientists are seeing "survival of the weak and scrawny."
Hunters frequently compare their role in the ecosystem to that of natural predators, some of which are disappearing throughout the world. The problem with that analogy is that, unlike hunters, natural predators target the small, the weak, and the sick. Hunters, on the other hand, tend to target the largest, strongest individuals with the largest hides, horns, tusks or antlers. Researchers now find that bighorn sheep in Alberta, Canada have smaller horns compared to 30 years ago. Red kangaroos in Australia are smaller, and fewer African and Asian elephants have tusks.
While animal rights activists oppose hunting based purely on the animals' right to live, the threat to the survival of the species is an additional reason that even hunters are concerned about:
"The hunters wish for animals with large antlers and large horns, and yet their actions are making that harder to achieve," says Richard Harris, a conservation biologist in Montana. As a hunter, Harris knows that the outcome of this trend will satisfy no one.
The article also explores the definition of "fittest." If having no tusks is an advantage because these individuals are less attractive targets to hunters, what's wrong with having no tusks? The article points out, "Tusks used to make elephants fitter, as a weapon or a tool in foraging—until ivory became a precious commodity and having tusks got you killed." In other words, in exchange for being less attractive hunting targets, these tuskless elephants had to give up their weapons and foraging tools, which makes them much less fit in other ways.
The link between hunting and tuskless elephants is unclear because of the difficulties involved with studying the effects of hunting on evolution, including the time scale and factors such as climate change and habitat loss. But if the effects of hunting on the evolution of these species is unclear, shouldn't we be safe rather than sorry? If we allow this destruction to continue while the jury is still out, we will not stop until they are on the brink of extinction. By then, the genetically strongest individuals will have been practically eradicated from the population and it will be too late.