LOOK at how we missed all 20 of the past decade’s biodiversity targets, or shocking graphs of animals threatened with extinction, and it is easy to be disheartened about the fate of the natural world. “There’s lots of doom and gloom stories around about biodiversity,” says Stuart Butchart at the conservation body BirdLife International. “It would be easy to feel conservation was a pointless exercise and there’s nothing we can do to slow the juggernaut down.”
Butchart’s work suggests that isn’t the full picture, however. He was part of a team that recently estimated that conservation initiatives had prevented up to 32 bird and 16 mammal extinctions since 1993. Given that 10 bird and five mammal species are known to have gone extinct in that time, the researchers concluded that extinction rates would have been up to four times higher without action. “I think that’s a positive message. It’s not all bad news, always,” says Friederike Bolam at Newcastle University, UK, the study’s lead author.
Many of the most successful conservation efforts involve big “charismatic” species, such as the giant panda, that readily attract attention and funding. But Bolam and Butchart’s team identified a number of recurring and widely applicable themes in successful conservation work: removal of invasive species, management of hunting and protection of important habitats. “Broadly speaking, we have the tools, we just need much greater resource and political will,” says Butchart.
Even so, targeted actions won’t turn the tide alone. Stemming biodiversity loss will also require more fundamental changes to how we value nature – and whether those will be forthcoming is the trillion-dollar question. For now, here are 10 conservation success stories from around the globe that give some idea of what works.
CALIFORNIA CONDOR (Gymnogyps californianus)
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List status: Critically endangered
Numbers of the largest North American land bird declined so steeply in the 20th century that only 27 were left by 1987, at which point all were taken into captivity to try to save the species. “They are basically a vulture. They feed on carcasses and ingest fragments of lead shot, and because they live for decades, that can accumulate over time. It’s incredibly poisonous,” says Butchart. Other pressures included chicks ingesting rubbish including glass, collisions with electricity pylons and the insecticide DDT – banned in the US since 1972 – which thinned the species’ eggs.
Following a successful captive breeding programme, the condors were reintroduced into the wild starting in 1991. There are now 93 mature individuals in a population of 300 birds in the wild. If numbers continue to increase, their status could be improved to “endangered” on the IUCN Red List by 2024. Lead shot used by hunters to kill animals that the birds scavenge is still a problem, although lobbying led California to ban it in 2019. For now, affected birds are recaptured so dialysis can remove lead from their blood. “They are by no means saved entirely,” says Butchart.
BLACK STILT (Himantopus novaezelandiae)
Regarded as a “living treasure” by the Maori in its native New Zealand, this wading bird came close to being an ex-treasure, largely because of predator species introduced to the country such as cats, stoats and rats. Likewise, non-native animals were the top threat to the 32 bird species Bolam’s team identified as saved from extinction.
Loss of habitat to agriculture and hydroelectric schemes also contributed to black stilt numbers plummeting to just 23 in 1981, when the New Zealand government intervened with an intensive programme of captive breeding and pest control.
Numbers had recovered to 106 in 2017, but predator pressure remains: every four to five years, a bumper release of seeds from southern beech trees causes a boom in rats that prey on this bird’s eggs. In 2016, New Zealand set an ambitious target to eradicate invasive predators by 2050.
“We have the tools to stem biodiversity loss – we need the will”
TIGER (Panthera tigris)
“The story of tigers is a story of decline of one of Earth’s largest predators,” says Stuart Chapman at conservation body WWF-UK. During the 20th century, this carnivore dwindled across its historical range from India to Indonesia, east Asia and the Russian far east. Habitat loss, poaching and retaliation for conflict with people and livestock were the drivers, says Elizabeth Bennett at the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society. Loss of prey contributed too: one tiger needs to eat a deer-sized animal a week. From an estimated 100,000 a century before, tiger numbers fell to 3200 by 2010.
That year, the international TX2 initiative was agreed with the aim of doubling tiger numbers by 2022 through initiatives such as protected areas, removal of snares and “tiger underpasses” beneath roads. Official estimates are due next year, but numbers are now thought to be up in India, Nepal, Bhutan, China and Russia – while tigers have vanished entirely from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
“There has been a mixed bag,” says Chapman. “Without conservation interventions, they will disappear, no doubt.” A major tiger summit in St Petersburg, Russia, in October 2022 is due to take stock and look to a brighter future, including reintroductions.
MOUNTAIN GORILLA (Gorilla beringei beringei)
The first case of gorillas contracting covid-19 – announced by San Diego Zoo in California on 11 January – raises a worrying new risk for the mountain gorilla. This subspecies of the eastern gorilla, the largest living primate, survives in two populations split across rainforest on extinct volcanoes in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is a poster child for conservation rooted in ecotourism that brings people to their habitat.
Poaching and forest felling for agriculture reduced mountain gorilla numbers to around 250 in 1981. After earlier attempts to establish protected areas antagonised some local communities, ecotourism took off and made gorillas more valuable alive than dead – permits to see the animals can cost $1500 each, says Bennett.
Numbers now stand at a minimum of 1063 – the only great ape that is on the up. Continuing threats include disease and snares set to poach other animals, says Cath Lawson at WWF-UK. “We consider it to be a conservation success story, but it’s not a done deal,” she says. Rwanda and Uganda are now resuming tourist visits, and these will include steps to minimise covid-19 risk, after a pandemic-induced hiatus.
INDUS RIVER DOLPHIN (Platanista gangetica minor)
This river dolphin, a subspecies of the South Asian river dolphin that relies on echolocation, is found only in the Indus river basin, mostly in Pakistan. In 1923, British colonial authorities built the first of 19 barrages across the Indus to divert water for irrigating crops, fragmenting the dolphins’ habitat. Once found throughout the 3000-kilometre-long Indus, their range shrank to 1300 kilometres. By 2001, numbers had dropped to 1200.
Satellite tracking in 2009 showed that the dolphins can sometimes pass through the barrages, but they often strand and die in the irrigation canals that run off them. Fishing nets pose a further problem. The barrages can’t simply be removed, says Uzma Khan at WWF-Pakistan. Acoustic devices help deter the dolphins from entering the canals, but educating fishing communities and recruiting local people for ecotourism and monitoring has been the key to an uptick to some 1800 animals, says Khan. “I initially saw it all as a scientist,” she says. “I learned you cannot do anything without communities.”
“The blue whale recovery shows what humans can do if they leave things alone”
ANTARCTIC BLUE WHALE (Balaenoptera musculus intermedia)
“The world used to run on whales,” says Jennifer Jackson at the British Antarctic Survey. Hunted mainly for their oily blubber, the Antarctic subspecies of the largest whale was particularly desirable. From an estimated 239,000 before the advent of industrial whaling in the early 20th century, by the early 1970s, whaling had whittled them down to just 360.
The species was given legal protection in the 1960s, but Soviet whalers continued hunting in the Southern Ocean regardless. “They just hoovered up the remaining whales,” says Jackson. An international moratorium on whaling signed in 1986 had global scope and adherence – though it was only agreed when it was clear there were precious few whales left to catch.
Preliminary estimates show that Antarctic blue whales recovered to some 4500 individuals by 2015, says Jackson, though that number won’t be formally confirmed until later this year. It will take centuries for them to revive fully, but “the blue whale recovery is symbolic of what humans can do if they just leave things alone”, says Jackson. Rod Downie at WWF-UK says the biggest threat to the species today is climate change, especially changes to sea ice that affects nurseries of krill, the tiny crustaceans that nourish the largest animal to have existed on Earth.
EUROPEAN BISON (Bison bonasus)
Nearly 2 metres tall and weighing up to a tonne, Europe’s largest land mammal once ranged from Spain to the Caucasus. It has staged a remarkable comeback since the last wild one was killed in Poland’s Białowieża Forest in 1927, the victim of hunting and habitat destruction and fragmentation.
The bison’s reintroduction across Eastern Europe from the final 54 left in captivity has been an “incredible story”, says Paul de Ornellas at WWF-UK. “One of the lessons is that successful reintroductions require a lot of effort, coordination and people,” he says.
The IUCN relaxed the bison’s status from vulnerable to near-threatened last December, after numbers rose from 1800 in 2003 to 6200 in 2019. There are now 47 free-ranging herds in countries including Germany, Poland and Romania, although only eight are considered big enough and genetically diverse enough to be self-sustaining. Action is now focused on growing the small groups and helping herds connect.
JAVAN RHINOCEROS (Rhinoceros sondaicus)
In 2010, the last of these forest rhinos on the Asian mainland was found dead in Vietnam, apparently perishing months after being shot. Poaching and habitat loss – to agriculture, including palm oil plantations, and growing human settlements – had been its nemesis.
Fortunately, around 50 survived in the Ujung Kulon National Park in the west of the densely populated Indonesian island of Java. There are now 74 in the park, says Bibhab Talukdar at the IUCN, thanks to efforts led by the Indonesian government. These included making their home a protected area and managing the invasive palm Arenga obtusifolia. This plant rapidly crowds out others once it gets a toehold, says CeCe Sieffert at the International Rhino Foundation. “Other plant species cannot compete with it and it’s inedible to Javan rhino,” she says.
Her group hires local people to cut the palm down by hand. But with the only home for these rhinos at risk from tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and disease, suitable sites must be found for reintroductions. “It’s so we don’t have all the eggs in one basket,” says Talukdar.
GIANT PANDA (Ailuropoda melanoleuca)
Logging, expanding cities, tourism and roads carving up its forest home drove what Qiang Xu at WWF-China calls a “very rapid decline” in the giant panda in the 20th century. Surveys between 1985 and 1988 found just 1114 animals, down from the 2459 detected between 1974 and 1977.
Political will and protected areas turned the story around. China has created 67 giant panda reserves since the 1960s, and in 1988 banned logging entirely in their habitats. “The determination and investment of the Chinese government is the key,” says Xu. The fourth national survey of the animals in 2015 found 1864 of them. A year later, their official conservation status was altered to reflect this, going from “endangered” to “vulnerable”.
But the surviving 20 populations remain fragmented. The recently declared Giant Panda National Park, which extends across more than 27,000 square kilometres in the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu, is a major attempt to fix that. Time will tell if it works.
HAINAN GIBBON (Nomascus hainanus)
The world’s most endangered primate, endemic to the Chinese island of the same name, shrank from 2000 individuals to around nine by the 1980s. Hunting and rainforest clearance confined them to just one block of forest called Bawangling.
Monitoring by conservationists and local people since 2005 has deterred poaching, and hands-on interventions, such as a canopy bridge built after a typhoon to help gibbons cross a gap in the forest made by a landslide, are helping too. “They are slowly but steadily increasing,” says Bosco Chan at Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden in Hong Kong. Last year, a fifth group of the primates was identified, and there are now believed to be around 33 individuals.
Pengfei Fan at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, China, says that while the numbers are “still very, very small”, there is commitment to their protection. Regional and central government upped investment last year, patrols are increasing and one village near their habitat may even be moved, says Fan. “It shows, even with the most doomed species, there is always hope,” says Bosco.
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