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How Unregulated Hunting Almost Wiped Out Amazonian Species

When the rubber boom began attracting scores of colonists with dollar signs in their eyes to the Amazon rainforest in the late 19th century, vast areas of the world’s most pristine jungle became transformed into a hub of trade and industry, all of which spelled disaster for much of the local wildlife. A new study has been published in the journal Science Advances revealing the extent of the damage suffered by different species, some of which were virtually eradicated.

Most of the hunting occurred after 1912, when competition from Malaysian rubber caused the Amazonian market to collapse, resulting in many settlers turning their attention to exporting animal hides instead.

By examining cargo ship inventories and port registries from settlements in the Brazilian Amazon, the researchers found that the hides of at least 23 million animals from 20 different species of mammals and reptiles were exported between 1904 and 1969.

However, study co-author Taal Levi said in a statement that this statistic may be just the tip of the iceberg, explaining that “these figures, no doubt, vastly underrepresent the total number of animals killed since many were hidden to avoid taxes and others were wounded or killed and never made it to the steamships.”

Though the free-for-all came to an end in 1975 when the ratification of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) imposed strict controls on the hide trade, the authors say their study highlights the dangers of unregulated hunting, warning that it can lead to an “empty forest” scenario.

182,564 jaguar kills were recorded between 1904 and 1969. JT Platt/Shutterstock

In particular, the 20th century commercial hunters wrought havoc on aquatic species, which were much easier to hunt due to the fact that they were “trapped” in rivers and therefore had less chance of escape than land animals.

As a result, more than 4.4 million black caimans were killed during this period, resulting in the 1969 harvest being 92 percent lower than it had been at its peak. Similarly, the manatee harvest was reduced by 91 percent, while those of giant otters and capybaras were diminished by 88 and 75 percent respectively.

That’s not to say that terrestrial animals had a particularly easy ride, either. More than 800,000 ocelots and 180,000 jaguars were also slaughterd, with the latter declining in number by 30 percent as a result.

Overall, the “basin-wide population collapse” of some of the Amazon’s aquatic species should be taken as a warning to all conservationists, revealing what can happen when stringent controls are not put in place and enforced.

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