- More than 1 million plant and animal species face extinction, experts say.
- These conservation efforts have been successful though and show that all is not lost.
- The programmes include schemes to help jaguars, gibbons and the Tasmanian Devil.
Whether on land, in the air, or in the water, plants and animals large and small are struggling.
In the tropical sub-regions of the Americas, for example, wildlife populations have plummeted by 94% since 1970. Overall, more than 1 million species of animals and plants face extinction, experts say.
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It’s a serious situation, but there is hope in the form of people striving to boost biodiversity through rewilding and conservation efforts.
Here are some success stories, which could point the way to further positive outcomes in the future.
The Tasmanian Devil
The Tasmanian Devil was wiped out in mainland Australia around 3,000 years ago, mostly as a result of being outcompeted by other carnivores, such as the dingo. Confined to the island of Tasmania – hence the name – these small marsupials then suffered a 90% population collapse in the wake of disease. Now, a charity called Aussie Ark has started to rewild parts of Australia with Tasmanian Devils.
Weighing up to 8kg, the Tasmanian Devil is about the size of a small dog. Yet it is an apex predator, not to mention the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial. Its presence as part of an ecosystem belies its small size, as it can help control the population and impact of cats and foxes that prey on other endangered species.
“In 100 years, we are going to be looking back at this day as the day that set in motion the ecological restoration of an entire country,” said Tim Faulkner, president of Aussie Ark.
Gibbons in China
Off the southern coast of mainland China lies the island of Hainan. It’s home to the Hainan gibbon, which although endemic to the island is in a perilous state. Only around 30 of these primates remain, all residing within the Hainan Bawangling National Nature Reserve. Following loss of habitat caused by a 2014 typhoon, conservationists have constructed rope crossings to join separate parts of the forest together for the gibbons.
“While restoring natural forest corridors should be a priority conservation intervention, artificial canopy bridges may be a useful short-term solution,” said researchers studying the gibbons in the reserve.
Gibbons are found in many parts of southern Asia and have adapted over millennia to life high up in the trees. As such, being able to travel via the forest canopy from one area to another – in search of food, water and shelter – is vital. The Hainan rope crossings helped bridge gaps created by storm damage. Could a similar approach work in other areas affected by deforestation?
South American jaguars
The jaguar is the world’s third-largest cat and South America’s largest predator. Like other big cats, it has come close to extinction. Hunting and habitat loss came close to seeing them disappear completely from parts of the continent – in Argentina today, there are only around 200 left.
The United Nations Environment Programme and the Global Rewilding Alliance are reintroducing this magnificent creature to one of its former natural habitats in the northeast of the country: the Iberá wetlands.
In January 2021, a female adult jaguar and her two (captive-born) cubs were released there as part of a rewilding programme that will eventually return 20 jaguars to the area.
Doreen Robinson, Chief of Wildlife at the UNEP, said: “Carefully re-introducing predators such as jaguars can help restore ecosystems. Without these species, biodiversity suffers and the services that nature provides can break down – from disease mitigation and soil protection to water system regulation.”
Back from the dead
As well as these conservation successes, there have also been discoveries of animals – sometimes referred to as Lazarus species – that were thought to be extinct only to have subsequently reappeared. Among them are:
- The Somali elephant shrew: Last seen almost 50 years ago. Until, in August 2020, a team of researchers and academics reported that these tiny, odd-looking creatures were alive and well.
- The red kite: Once common throughout the UK, populations of this majestic-looking bird collapsed in the wake of the industrial revolution. By the 1980s, it was listed as endangered. In the 1990s, 13 of the birds were imported from Spain and released into the southern English counties of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. There are now thought to be around 4,600 breeding red kite pairs.
- The terror skink: In 1872, the French botanist Benjamin Balansa discovered a lizard while visiting the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia. It was around half a metre in length and had a mouthful of vicious-looking teeth. It wasn’t seen again until 2003.
- The Bermuda petrel: This sea bird hadn’t been seen on Nonsuch Island, Bermuda since the 1620s. However, in the 1950s a small number of the birds were spotted nesting in the east of Bermuda and the population has since recovered. You can even watch webcam footage of them here.