• Red kite a common sight across much of southern England after reintroduction began 30 years ago.
  • Wolves are finding new homes throughout Europe.
  • Bison were only found in Europe’s zoos but now they’re being reintroduced in rewilding projects.

All too often, stories about conservation efforts can leave us feeling pessimistic.

The collapse of ecosystems and reductions in biodiversity are among the top five threats facing the planet in the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Risks Report and the number of threatened species around the world is rising.

The number of endangered species is rising.
The number of endangered species is rising.
Image: Statista

There are still, however, some reasons to be cheerful – if not overly optimistic. Here are four conservation success stories that show how a concerted effort to protect wildlife populations can deliver results.

1. Red kites

Eight-lanes wide, with a circumference of 188km, London’s orbital motorway, the M25, is an unpromising habitat for wildlife. But drivers traversing its north-western edge may have noticed large, majestic birds with distinctive forked tails, spiralling effortlessly in the skies above them.

A red kite flys over the Chiltern Hills near Lewknor, southern England, February 25, 2008. The red kite became extinct in England around the end of the nineteenth century. However according to the RSPB there are now over 200 breeding pairs in the area and in the last two decades they have been re-introduced to England and Scotland with magnificent results.
A red kite flies over the Chiltern Hills near Lewknor, southern England.
Image: REUTERS/ Eddie Keogh

The red kite was once a common sight across the UK. But populations collapsed in the wake of the industrial revolution to the point where it was listed as an endangered species in the 1980s.

Now, they are booming in numbers. Particularly in the southern English counties of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, where a reintroduction programme was started in the summer of 1990.

Initially, just 13 kites - which had been brought over from Spain - were released. More were released soon after. The red kite population in the UK is now thought to number around 4,600 breeding pairs.

2. European bison

The animal is more typically associated with images of the wide-open plains of North America. But they were once a regular feature in Europe, too. At least until the last wild European bison was shot and killed in 1927. The only bison left in Europe were in zoos and parks. But in the 1950s, a series of initiatives began to reintroduce Europe’s largest wild land mammals into their former habitats.

European Bison
A European Bison
Image: Talks Presenters 09 at English Wikipedia / CC BY-SA

Lowland Europe’s last remaining primaeval forest, the Białowieża Forest, is home to around 1,000 wild bison. Germany, Switzerland, Poland, Lithuania and Belarus now all boast wild populations.

Białowieża was also the site at which rewilding efforts began, when Polish conservationists released the first European bison back into the forest in 1954. The 54 bison left in zoos, all descended from just 12 animals, formed the basis of the successful reintroduction.

3. Wolves

Dogs may be one of the world’s most popular pets, but their common ancestor the wolf is rarely a welcome visitor. The subject of fear and darkness in many children’s tales, wolves were hunted across many centuries and were almost driven to extinction across much of Europe by the middle of the last century.

The grey wolf
Anti-hunting laws and habitat protection have helped boost wolf numbers across much of Europe.
Image: European Commission

Now, they are an increasingly common sight in Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and throughout many parts of central and eastern Europe, extending into Ukraine and Russia. This is due to two main factors – a ban on wolf-hunting in most of the European Union, and the preservation of natural habitats that support many wild animals, including wolves.

However, not everyone is happy about this. Wolves tend to feed on livestock, which brings them into conflict with farmers in particular.

4. Beavers

The reintroduction of beavers into the English countryside may have been less controversial than the support wolves have received in parts of Europe, but it hasn’t been universally popular either.

In 2013, video footage appeared on social media showing beavers inhabiting a stretch of the River Otter near the village of Ottery St Mary, in southern England. There was no official explanation for how they got there and there were calls to have them removed.

But following a five-year study of their effect on the local environment, 15 families of beavers have been given the right to remain. Meanwhile, beavers in Scotland have been hunted sparking concerns that the population may dwindle.