- Humpback populations, driven to near-extinction, have bounced back, thanks to an international moratorium on whaling.
- Scientists from Israel and neighbouring Arab countries are working together to save the Red Sea’s coral reefs.
- England has its first wild beaver colony in 400 years, and their dams are helping to reduce flooding.
“Sustaining all life on Earth” is the theme of this year’s World Wildlife Day on 3 March.
We have a huge task ahead of us to save our planet’s biodiversity, as climate change takes an unprecedented toll on the natural world and scientists warn of a "sixth mass extinction."
But some of that work has already begun, and what better time to celebrate it than on World Wildlife Day?
Here are 10 inspiring conservation stories that prove what’s possible when we work together.
1. Whale species back from the brink
An estimated 2 million whales were hunted and killed from the 19th to the mid-20th century for their meat, oil and blubber. Species such as the western South Atlantic humpback were driven to the brink of extinction, leading to a “pause” in commercial whaling in 1986. Shortly after, global trade of whale products was banned and limits were set on subsistence whaling.
The result? Today, humpbacks are a common sight and have almost returned to their pre-whaling numbers. Grey whales in the eastern Pacific have also enjoyed a resurgence.
But there’s more to do: six out of the 13 great whale species are still endangered or vulnerable. Iceland and Norway continue to hunt whales, and Japan also resumed commercial whaling in its waters in 2018.
2. Joint effort to save Red Sea reefs
Scientists from Israel and neighbouring Arab countries are working together to protect Red Sea coral reefs.
Around the world, warmer seas are disrupting delicate reef ecosystems, forcing coral to eject the algae that lives on them, turning them white. This “bleaching” destroys a critical part of the food chain, and turns reefs into barren underwater deserts. It’s thought that by 2030 more than half of the Earth’s reefs could be under threat.
The scientists from countries including Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Yemen are setting up a study centre in Switzerland to collaborate on solutions to the Red Sea’s most pressing problems.
3. England’s first wild beaver colony in 400 years
Beavers are fascinating animals, and more important than you might think. They’ve been extinct in the UK for over 400 years, but in 2008, a small group of beavers were spotted along the River Otter in Devon. They’d escaped from captivity, and found the conditions favourable. Today, there are eight family groups living along the river, and researchers are studying them to see how they help the local ecology.
Their appearance has encouraged the regrowth of native plants, and their burrows have created new habitats for other forms of wildlife such as otters and wading birds. They’ve even helped to stem the flow of flood waters with their dams, reducing water damage to local communities.
4. Mountain gorilla numbers recover
At one time, mountain gorillas were expected to become extinct by the end of the 20th century. However, a new study has shown that their numbers may actually be increasing for the first time in a while.
Sustained conservation efforts in the Virunga Massif in East Africa has seen mountain gorilla numbers rise from 480 in 2010 to 604 in 2016. This brings the total number of mountain gorillas worldwide to over 1,000.
While they remain firmly on the endangered species list, and are extremely vulnerable to disease and human interference, it’s an important step in the right direction.
5. Bald eagle numbers return to former glory
Around 40 years ago, bald eagle numbers dwindled across the US and sightings became extremely rare, celebrated events. America’s national symbol was on the verge of extinction, with little hope of recovery. Illegal shooting, pesticide contamination, and degradation and destruction of their habitat all played a role in the bald eagle’s decline. By 1963, only 487 nesting pairs remained.
Since then we’ve taken huge strides to bring the bald eagle back from the brink. In 1972, DDT, the harmful pesticide contaminating their food, was banned in the US. 1973 saw the introduction of the Endangered Species Act, which helped protect the bald eagle in particular. In the 1980s, a series of recovery plans were set in motion across the US, and by 1995 the bald eagle had moved from the endangered species list to the threatened list.
The bald eagle was removed from the list of threatened species on 9 August 2007.
6. India’s wild tiger population is increasing
A century ago, more than 100,000 tigers roamed the planet, but as humans encroached on their habitats and hunted them that number dwindled to a record low of just 3,200 in 2010.
India is one of 13 nations working on a common goal to double tiger numbers by 2022. It’s estimated that India’s wild tiger population has increased by 33% since 2015.
7. Brown pelicans see a huge turnaround
By the 1970s, brown pelicans had all but disappeared from the US. Suffering a similar fate to the bald eagle, the inclusion of the pesticide DDT in their food chain caused problems such as the thinning of eggshells which made chicks harder to rear.
They were granted much-needed protection by the Endangered Species Act. By 1980, rehabilitation efforts were well underway, and 1,276 pelicans were manually reintroduced into Louisiana.
In 1985, the brown pelican population was stable enough to remove them from the endangered species list, and in 2007 over 24,000 fledglings were counted in Louisiana alone.
8. The grey wolf reclaims its home in the US
It’s thought that more than 2 million grey wolves once roamed North America before human interference saw their numbers dwindle. In 1960 only 300 grey wolves remained, just about surviving deep in the woods of Wisconsin and Minnesota. By 1974 they were finally afforded protection under the Endangered Species Act.
More than four decades on, their population has bounced back significantly, due to humans re-introducing them into their old habitats. Today, more than 5,443 grey wolves are thought to be thriving across 48 states in the US.
9. Steller sea lions make a comeback
Steller sea lions make their home along the west coast of the US, but face dangers such as drift nets, illegal hunting, offshore drilling and oil exploration. In 1979, their numbers hit a record low of 18,000 and the population continued to struggle.
In 1990, they were added to the endangered species list and divided up into distinct population settlements in the east and west. The western population continued to struggle, but the eastern population thrived and saw a 300% increase. By 2013, the eastern population was no longer considered endangered, and work continues to improve conditions for the western population.
There are now more than 70,000 Steller sea lions thriving in the wild.
10. The panda as a conservation symbol
The latest census in 2014 counted 1,864 pandas in the wild. While not many at all, this is an improvement on the historic low of 1,000 pandas in the 1970s.
In 1979, the WWF signed an agreement with China – the first of its kind – to secure the Chinese government’s cooperation in helping to save the giant panda. In the 1980s, WWF-funded research and satellite imagery revealed suitable habitat for pandas around Sichuan Province had reduced by at least 50%. The nineties saw the introduction of a management plan and a decade of cooperation between the WWF and the Chinese Ministry of Forestry.
A lot of human effort still goes into counting panda numbers. Teams of 40 people at a time trek through steep and mountainous bamboo forests to find tracks and traces of panda activity.
The panda has also become a symbol of conservation across the globe, with the WWF adopting the animal for its logo.