Until relatively recently in human history, people existed as nomadic hunter-gatherers. They used animals primarily as a source of food and also for raw materials that could be used for making tools and clothes. By today's standards, hunter-gatherers were equipped with rudimentary weapons, but they still had a major impact on the numbers of some species. Many scientists believe, for example, that humans were involved in a cluster of extinctions that occurred about 12,000 years ago in North America. In less than a millennium, two-thirds of the continent's large mammal species disappeared.
Elephant populations are on the brink of extinction due to poachers who kill elephants for their ivory tusks. An international ban on ivory trade, instituted in 1989 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), has diminished the illicit ivory trade and reduced the killing. Over 120 countries support the ban.
This simple relationship between people and animals changed with domestication, which also began about 12,000 years ago. Instead of being actively hunted, domesticated animals were slowly brought under human control. Some were kept for food or for clothing, others for muscle power, and some simply for companionship.
The first animal to be domesticated was almost certainly the dog, which was bred from wolves. It was followed by species such as the cat, horse, camel, llama, and aurochs (a species of wild cattle), and also by the Asian jungle fowl, which is the ancestor of today's chickens. Through selective breeding, each of these animals has been turned into forms that are particularly suitable for human use. Today, many domesticated animals, including chickens, vastly outnumber their wild counterparts. In some cases, such as the horse, the original wild species has died out altogether.
Over the centuries, many domesticated animals have been introduced into different parts of the world only to escape and establish themselves in the wild. Together with stowaway pests such as rats, these "feral" animals have often had a highly damaging effect on native wildlife. Cats, for example, have inflicted great damage on Australia's smaller marsupials, and feral pigs and goats continue to be serious problems for the native wildlife of the Galápagos Islands.
Despite the growth of domestication, humans continue to hunt some wild animals. Some forms of hunting are carried out mainly for sport, but others provide food or animal products. Until recently, one of the most significant of these forms of hunting was whaling, which reduced many whale stocks to the brink of extinction. Today, highly efficient sea fishing threatens some species of fish with the same fate (see Fisheries).
Since the beginning of agriculture, the human population has increased by more than two thousand times. To provide the land needed for growing food and housing people, large areas of the earth's landscapes have been completely transformed. Forests have been cut down, wetlands drained, and deserts irrigated, reducing these natural habitats to a fraction of their former extent.
Some species of animals have managed to adapt to these changes. A few, such as the brown rat, raccoon, and house sparrow, have benefited by exploiting the new opportunities that have opened up and have successfully taken up life on farms, or in towns and cities. But most animals have specialized ways of life that make them dependent on a particular kind of habitat. With the destruction of their habitats, their number inevitably declines.
In the 20th century, animals have also had to face additional threats from human activities. Foremost among these are environmental pollution and also the increasing demand for resources such as timber and fresh water. For some animals, the combination of these changes has proved so damaging that their numbers are now below the level needed to guarantee survival.
Across the world, efforts are currently underway to address this urgent problem (see Endangered Species). In the most extreme cases, gravely threatened animals can be helped by taking them into captivity and then releasing them once breeding programs have increased their number. One species that has been saved in this way is the Hawaiian mountain goose or nene. In 1951, its population had been reduced to just 33 birds. Captive breeding has since increased the population to over 2500, removing the immediate threat of extinction.
While captive breeding is a useful emergency measure, it cannot assure the long-term survival of a species. Today animal protection focuses primarily on the preservation of entire habitats, an approach that maintains the necessary links between the different species the habitats support. With the continued growth in the world's human population, habitat preservation will require a sustained reduction in our use of the world's resources to minimize our impact on the natural world.