Called “the penguin of the north,” although not closely related to penguins, the great auk was, in the 1800s, very much endangered by human hunting. People hunted this bird for its meat, feathers, and oil. It had disappeared from Norway by the 1300s, and its population had dramatically dipped elsewhere by the end of the 1600s. By the 1800s, one of the bird's last breeding spots was a small volcanic island off the coast of Iceland.
In 1830, an underwater volcanic eruption and earthquake destroyed that island.
With only a few survivors left in the entire world, the great auk settled on a few nearby islands. Someone beat the last bird on St. Kilda to death because he thought it might be a witch. The last pair, who lived on Eldey Island, were beaten to death by collectors—and their egg was broken, as well—on this day in 1844.
Was everyone blind to the problem that extinction is forever? Did nobody think ahead and realize that, if ALL the birds were killed for meat, oil, feathers, and trophies, then our supply of those things would be gone forever?
Actually, some people did realize that human exploitation was driving the bird to extinction, and they did plead with governments to protect the birds—to “stop the massacre.” And some laws were passed and even enforced. But not enough.
Not enough laws and not enough enforcement, not soon enough, and not widespread enough, to save the great auk.