Overhunting is a problem everywhere, and while today that problem exists even in countries where regulations bar hunters from taking too much, the legacy of overhunting still exists in places where regulations weren’t always enforced.
Iceland and its Arctic Foxes are a good example, with historic overhunting being such a problem that the population of foxes had dwindled over the years to an all-time low of fewer than 1,300 adults. However, things have turned around for the species there. Thanks to their unique biological and behavioural adaptations and protections from the Icelandic government, the Iceland Arctic Foxes are now thriving.
Fur coats are and have been a sign of luxury and wealth for those who can afford them. This has been the case for generations, and the fur trade was a major reason for the rapid European colonization of the Americas. Arctic Foxes, like mink, beaver, and bears, are prized for their fur and have been hunted for centuries.
Foxes are also known to disrupt livestock, so residents and farmers have been incentivized to kill them beyond just for their fur. In Iceland, the legislation there mandated that residents kill foxes and, if possible, take out whole families in their dens. They used a particularly nasty method of planting poison into the animal’s dens, which had consequences beyond just the destruction of the fox population in Iceland.
White-tailed eagles began to die from fox poison, so in 1964 the government went back on its decision to eradicate the foxes. Further gains for the foxes occurred in 1994 when The Protection and Hunting of Wild Species Act was implemented. This legislation specifically protected foxes from the hunting and poisoning that had destroyed their populations prior. While hunting is still allowed with a license, it is strictly regulated, poison is banned, and their populations are closely monitored.
Today, around 8,000 adult Arctic Foxes roam in Iceland, and as such, in places like Hornstrandir Nature Reserve on Iceland’s northwest coast, scientists refer to the place as the “Kingdom of Arctic Foxes.” But the challenges for arctic foxes don’t end there. Iceland has a notoriously inhospitable climate, with temperatures in the winter regularly dropping to -40 degrees Celsius and winds kicking up to 265 km/h. Many other species head south during these times, but the arctic foxes stay mainly due to their fluffy coats, which are three times more insulating in the winter than their red-furred cousins. They also have adapted to the environment behaviorally by storing their food during the winter to provide sustenance during the months when prey is not around.
When we think about our influence on our natural environment, we almost always underestimate the negative effects we create. This has its consequences, but by recognizing the damage our species has done to others, we can take measurable actions to improve the well-being of our fellow animals.
In hindsight, it seems easy to see that simply ceasing overhunting will bring back the population of a vulnerable species. But the decision to stop engaging in a destructive practice like overhunting is still difficult to make in places where the median income is incredibly low, and hunting provides food and income for one’s family.
Thankfully, success stories like that of the Icelandic Arctic fox prove that our actions make a difference and it is possible to help animals come back from the brink of doom.