Humans and animals have always had interesting relationships.

Millions of years ago it was every creature for itself, dodging the bigger predators and fighting over the available food sources.

Then, around 2.6 million years ago, humans' far distant ancestors started eating meat and marrow. This changed the evolutionary path, feeding brain growth and development, and was further enhanced by the discovery of cooking meat around 800,000 years ago.

Another shift occurred around 10,000 years ago when humans realised it would be a lot easier to contain and manage animals rather than constantly having to be on the move hunting them.

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The energy savings were diverted to other endeavours such as housing improvements, education, agriculture, and ultimately, civilisation.

But still the animals roamed free, and those that were not regularly farmed became more attractive for their exotic beauty and the challenge of capturing and killing them.

Besides food, there are other reasons cited for hunting: to experience nature, for a sense of connection, to acknowledge wildlife, to control pests, to manage populations, to prevent threat to livestock, for trophies, for trade, for display.

These days, hunting can be well-managed with designated protections, areas, seasons and totals permitted for various species.

The last known living Thylacine died on September 7, 1936, marking the extinction of a species that was wiped out largely through government-mandated deliberate hunting. Whanganui Regional Museum Collection Ref: 1805.61
The last known living Thylacine died on September 7, 1936, marking the extinction of a species that was wiped out largely through government-mandated deliberate hunting. Whanganui Regional Museum Collection Ref: 1805.61

But in the past, rampant hunting has had a damaging effect on some animals, ultimately causing the extinction of a number of species.

Extinction is natural and can be caused by diseases and disaster, but it must be acknowledged that humans have an impact.

It is estimated that extinction is happening a thousand times faster because of human activity, not just by hunting, but through changes to natural habitat, introduction of invasive species, unmanaged over harvesting, and pollution.

It is thought that over 300 species have become extinct due to accidental or deliberate human actions, and a further million species are on a significant decline towards extinction in the not-so-distant future.

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All hope is not lost, however, and thanks to their developed brains, humans can learn from their mistakes and put plans in place to ensure these trajectories can be changed.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List was established in 1964, providing a comprehensive inventory of species in the world currently under threat. Today, there are over 41,000 species on the list and 16,306 of those are endangered.

An endangered species receives special protections from hunting and trade, often the focus of conservation efforts and specialised breeding programmes. There are severe punishments for those caught breaking these rules.

Thanks to these protections, a number of animals have been removed from the endangered species list and downgraded to vulnerable, including the southern white rhinoceros, the giant panda, the Arabian oryx, the grey wolf, and closer to home, the North Island brown kiwi.

With increased awareness of the effect of human activity on nature, we are learning to better control ourselves and our undertakings and are working towards trying to prevent future extinctions.

For more information on the complicated relationship between humans and animals, make sure you check out the Museum's latest exhibition Teeth, Talons and Taxidermy.

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•Sandi Black is the archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.