Africa / Ecology / Economy / Extinction Haiku / Food / History / Poetry / Science


When the last known stalk of a Silphium plant was brought to Rome, it created a small sensation.  According to the historian Pliny, it was given to emperor Nero as a curiosity. No Silphium had been seen for quite some time. After that, the plant went into oblivion.

Although the exact identity of the plant is debated among botanists, it is very probable that it went extinct.

Silphium probably belonged to the order Apiales, a group of plants containing many aromatic vegetables, like, for example, carrots, parsley, fennel and celery, as well as spices and medical plants.

In antiquity, the Silphium plant, native to a small area in Cyrenaica, in what is today Libya, was widely used as a spice, a food preservative and a medicine. It seems to have been used as a vegetable, but mainly its dried sap or resin (known to the Romans as “laser”) was used. In Indian cooking today, a similar, probably closely related plant (Asafoetida) is used as a spice and for medical purposes, but ancient authors regarded this Indian and Persian variety as an inferior replacement for the real Silphium.

Silphium grew wild in a small area and it fetched a very high price. When the Roman empire grew large and rich, the plant was doomed. People collected and sold the plant until non of it remained.

Today, this pattern repeats itself many times. Elephant tusks, rhinoceros horns, dried seahorses, manta gills, shark fins, leopard furs, precious woods and many other products of threatened species are collected in the wild, as delicacies, as medicines (often based on superstitious beliefs in their effects) and for luxury items,for customers in Europe, in America and in East Asia, especially China. Like in the case of the Roman empire, the presence of large markets of rich, ruthless or thoughtless buyers, combined with poor or equally ruthless people collecting or poaching the plants and animals, has driven many species to the brink of extinction and some (like the Vietnamese Rhinoceros that went extinct in 2011) over its edge.

Silphium was not the only species extinguished or reduced by the Roman empire. The circus “games” for example consumed a large number of predatory animals, like, for example, lions, which became extinct around the Mediterranean.

Since there are large markets of rich people again, it is probable that we will have to witness the Silphium-type extinction – the extinction of species due to non-sustainable over-harvesting for an often distant market of rich buyers – many times again over the next years and decades. This is not the only mechanism causing the current mass extinction, but an important part of it.

Let me close this article with a memorial-haiku for the Silphium plant, this time written in Latin:

Tum excidebat

Cupiditas Silphium

Sapor oblitus

English translation:

Then was extinguished

By greediness Silphium

The taste forgotten

(The picture is from To translate the Latin haiku to English, I had to use the passive voice. English words are just too short.)

8 thoughts on “Silphium

  1. Elephants are facing a threat in East Africa with an open market in Indonesia and China and people it appears to me don’t care much. The grazing fields of wild animals are also being encroached forcing them to change their habitat and I think this sort of disturbance also partly leads to their extinction.

    • Yes, there are often several factors involved. Habitat loss is another important contribution to extinction. In this post, I wanted to concentrate on the commercial overuse, but there are others: Overuse by the hunters/poachers etc. themselves (that happened already in stone age times), introduces species, habitat loss. The worst will be extinction through climate change, and that is just starting.
      In the end, its human greed and carelessness.

    • Profit before Life. It’s one of the prime directives of capitalism.

      Caviar is disgusting anyway so why is there such a huge market for it? It’s a “delicacy” like gold is “precious” because people have been conditioned for centuries to “believe” it.

      For the sake of discussion, let’s pretend that manta gills actually do what is claimed. How shortsighted is it to drive the only animal that can provide these miracle cures into extinction?

      The tunnel vision of the profit motive will be the prime causal agent of human extinction.

      • I looks like they do not care for the Mantas because it has no real effect. They don’t need a real effect for their business model to work. If Rhino horn becomes scarce, they switch to Manta gills. If Mantas become extinct, they will choose the next prey species. They just have to convince enough customers that it is good for something, and among more than a billion Chinese, they are going to find a large enough number of idiots who will believe any nonsense they tell them and will happily give their money for anything. It is a really perverse “business model”. All that is needed is “As if”. I think there is organized crime behind this and corruption.

  2. Read this history of the Huia Bird of New Zealand in Relation to people.
    One feather was given away to a royal person adn everyone in Europe wanted a feather like that. 60 years later was the last confirmed sighting of this bird…:

    Relationship with humans
    In culture
    Old painting of a Māori man wearing a birdskin ornament from one ear
    Tukukino, a Māori chief from the Hauraki District, wearing a pōhoi ornament made from a Huia skin (part of a painting c. 1880)

    In Māori culture, the “white heron and the Huia were not normally eaten but were rare birds treasured for their precious plumes, worn by people of high rank”.[35][36] The bold and inquisitive nature of the Huia made it particularly easy to capture.[11][15] Māori attracted the Huia by imitating its call and then captured it with a tari (a carved pole with a noose at the end) or snare, or killed it with clubs or long spears. Often they exploited the strong pair bond by capturing one of a pair, which would then call out, attracting its mate, which could be easily captured.[15][25] Opinion on the quality of Huia meat as food varied wildly; although not usually hunted for this purpose, the Huia was considered “good eating” in pies or curried stew[20] by some,[8] but a “tough morsel” and “unfit to eat” by others.[20]

    Although the Huia’s range was restricted to the southern North Island, its tail feathers were valued highly and were exchanged among tribes for other valuable goods such as pounamu and shark teeth, or given as tokens of friendship and respect. Through this trade, the feathers reached the far north and the far south of New Zealand.[3][11][15] They were stored in intricately carved boxes called waka huia, which were hung from the ceilings of chiefs’ houses.[3][15] Huia feathers were worn at funerals and used to decorate the heads of the deceased.[15][37] The marereko, described by Edward Robert Tregear as an “ancient war-plume”, consisted of twelve Huia feathers.[3][38] The highly valued pōhoi was an ornament made from the skin of the Huia: the bird was skinned with the beak, skull and wattles attached and the legs and wings removed,[3][15] carefully dried, and the resulting ornament worn from the neck or ears.[8] Dried Huia heads were also worn as pendants called ngutu huia.[3] A captured Huia would be kept in a small cage so that its tail feathers could be plucked as they grew to full size.[8][11]

    The bird was also kept by Māori as a pet, and like the tui, it could be trained to say a few words.[8] There is also a record of a tame Huia kept by European settlers in a small village in the Forty-Mile Bush in the 19th century.[11]
    Orange-coloured postage stamp with a central picture of two birds
    A pair of Huia are pictured on New Zealand’s 1898 threepenny stamp.

    New Zealand has released several postage stamps portraying the Huia,[39][40] and the New Zealand sixpence circulated from 1933 to 1966 featured a female Huia on the reverse.

    The degree to which the Huia was known and admired in New Zealand is reflected in the large number of suburban and geographical features which are named after the species. There are several roads and streets named after the Huia in the North Island, with several in Wellington (including Huia Road in Days Bay – not far from where one of the last sightings of this species occurred in the early 1920s in the forests of East Harbour Regional Park) and also in Auckland, where there is even a Huia suburb in Waitakere. A river on the west coast of the South Island and the Huiarau Ranges in the central North Island are also named after the bird. The species was once found living in great abundance in the forests of these mountains:[3] Huiarau means “a hundred Huia”.[20] Businesses include the public swimming pool in Lower Hutt, a Marlborough winery, and Huia Publishers, which specialises in Māori writing and perspectives. The name was first given to a child in the late 19th century, to the son of members of a lower North Island iwi concerned about the bird’s rapid decline,[15] and although uncommon, it is still used today in New Zealand as a name for girls and more rarely for boys (e.g. Huia Edmonds), of both European and Māori descent.

    Tail feathers of the extinct Huia are very rare and they have become a collectors’ item. In June 2010 a single Huia tail feather sold at auction in Auckland for NZ$8,000, much higher than the $500 the auctioneers had expected, making it the most expensive feather ever. The previous record price for a single feather was $US2,800 (NZ$4,000) achieved by a bald eagle feather at auction in the United States.[41]

    The Huia was found throughout the North Island before humans arrived in New Zealand. The Māori arrived around 800 years ago, and by the arrival of European settlers in the 1840s, habitat destruction and hunting had reduced the bird’s range to the southern North Island.[13] However, Māori hunting pressures on the Huia were limited to some extent by traditional protocols. The hunting season was from May to July when the bird’s plumage was in prime condition, while a rāhui (hunting ban) was enforced in spring and summer.[15] It was not until European settlement that the Huia’s numbers began to decline severely, due mainly to two well-documented factors: widespread deforestation and overhunting.
    Two stuffed birds on a wooden stand
    Mounted pair in Birmingham, England. Commercial hunting may have contributed to the extinction of the Huia

    Like the extinctions of other New Zealand birds such as the piopio in the 19th century, the decline of the Huia was poorly studied. Massive deforestation occurred in the North Island at this time, particularly in the lowlands of southern Hawkes Bay, the Manawatu and the Wairarapa, as land was cleared by European settlers for agriculture. The Huia was particularly vulnerable to this as it could only live in old-growth forest where there were abundant rotting trees filled with wood-boring insect larvae. It seems it could not survive in regenerating, secondary forests.[12][15] Although the mountainous part of its former range was not deforested, the lowland forests of the valleys below were systematically destroyed.[8][15] The destruction of this part of its habitat would have undoubtedly had a severe impact on Huia populations, but its removal would have been particularly dire if they did in fact descend to the lowlands as a winter refuge to escape snow at higher altitudes[15][37] as some researchers including Oliver have surmised.[20]

    It appears that predation by invasive mammalian species including ship rats, cats, and mustelids was an additional factor in the decline in Huia numbers – introduction of these animals by New Zealand Acclimatisation Societies peaked in the 1880s and coincided with a particularly sharp decline in Huia populations.[3] Because it spent a lot of time on the ground, the Huia would have been particularly vulnerable to mammalian predators.[12][13] Another hypothetical cause of extinction is exotic parasites and disease[1] introduced from Asia with the common myna.

    Habitat destruction and the predations of introduced species were problems faced by all New Zealand birds, but in addition the Huia faced massive pressure from hunting. Due to its pronounced sexual dimorphism and its beauty, Huia were sought after as mounted specimens by wealthy collectors in Europe[42] and by museums all over the world.[15][20] These individuals and institutions were willing to pay large sums of money for good specimens, and the overseas demand created a strong financial incentive for hunters in New Zealand.[42] This hunting was initially by naturalists. Austrian taxidermist Andreas Reischek took 212 pairs as specimens for the natural history museum in Vienna over a period of 10 years,[15] while New Zealand ornithologist Walter Buller collected 18 on just one of several expeditions to the Rimutaka Ranges in 1883.[15] Others keen to profit soon joined in. Buller records that also in 1883, a party of 11 Māori obtained 646 Huia skins from the forest between the Manawatu Gorge and Akitio.[13][25] Several thousand Huia were exported overseas as part of this trade.[12] Infrastructure development within lowland forest did not help the situation: hundreds of Huia were shot around road and rail construction camps.[20]

    While we were looking at and admiring this little picture of bird-life, a pair of Huia, without uttering a sound, appeared in a tree overhead, and as they were caressing each other with their beautiful bills, a charge of No. 6 brought them both to the ground together. The incident was rather touching and I felt almost glad that the shot was not mine, although by no means loth to appropriate 2 fine specimens.
    —Sir Walter Buller, New Zealand’s well-known 19th-century ornithologist, encapsulating what one source describes as the “ambiguous” 19th-century attitudes towards the declining New Zealand avifauna.[43]

    Man wearing traditional Māori cloak with two feathers in his hair
    Māori man from the Hauraki district wearing Huia tail feathers in his hair (photo prior to 1886)

    The rampant and unsustainable hunting was not just financially motivated: it also had a more philosophical, fatalistic aspect.[42] The conventional wisdom among New Zealand Europeans in the 19th century was that things colonial, whether they were plants, animals or people, were inferior to things European.[44] It was widely assumed that the plants and animals of New Zealand’s forest ecosystems would be quickly replaced by more vigorous and competitive European species.[44] This assumption of inevitable doom led to a conclusion that the conservation of native biota was pointless and futile; Victorian collectors instead focused their efforts on acquiring a good range of specimens before the rare species disappeared altogether.[42]

    There were some attempts to conserve the Huia, but they were few, poorly organised and poorly enforced legally: the conservation movement in New Zealand was still very much in its infancy.[15] There were successive sharp declines in numbers of Huia in the 1860s[3] and in the late 1880s, prompting the chiefs of the Manawatu and the Wairarapa to place a rāhui on the Tararua Range.[12] In February 1892, the Wild Birds Protection Act was amended to include the Huia, making it illegal to kill the bird, but enforcement was not taken seriously.[12] Island sanctuaries were set up for endangered native birds after this Act, but the new bird sanctuaries, including Kapiti Island, Little Barrier Island and Resolution Island, were never stocked with Huia. Although attempts were made to capture birds for transfer, no Huia were ever transferred.[3] The Kapiti Island attempt is documented as being particularly poorly managed.[12] A live pair destined to be transferred to the island in 1893 was instead appropriated by Buller, who bent the law to take them back to England as a present for Lord Rothschild, along with the last collected live pair of laughing owls.[44]

    The Duke and Duchess of York, later King George V and Queen Mary, visited New Zealand in 1901. At an official Māori welcome in Rotorua, a guide took a Huia tail feather from her hair and placed it in the band of the Duke’s hat as a token of respect.[12][20] Many people in England and New Zealand wanted to emulate this royal fashion and wear Huia feathers in their hats. The price of tail feathers was soon pushed to £1, making each bird worth £12, and some feathers sold for as much as £5.[12] Female Huia beaks were also set in gold as jewellery.[45] Shooting season notices ceased listing the Huia as a protected species in 1901,[15] and a last-ditch attempt to reinforce government protection failed when the Solicitor General ruled that there was no law to protect feathers.[12]


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