Hope springs eternal for species facing extinction

One species that has dodged the extinction threat: The Iberian lynx. Image: By Dušan veverkolog on Unsplash

Extinction is for ever, but not inevitable. Some threatened species are now surprising survivors. Can others follow suit?

LONDON, 22 February, 2021 − Scientists continue to issue strident warnings that the Earth faces a sixth mass extinction, and the evidence suggests they’re right.

There are some standout survivors, though − birds and mammals which not long ago appeared doomed but are now recovering. There is even a flickering hope that their resurgence could show the way to survival for some other species among the teeming millions at risk.

Researchers from the University of Newcastle, UK, and BirdLife International report in the journal Conservation Letters that different initiatives have prevented up to 32 bird and 16 mammal extinctions since 1993, the year the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity entered into force.

As 10 bird and five mammal species are known to have become extinct in that time, the researchers think extinction rates would have been up to four times higher if humans had not acted to help the survivors.

“I think that’s a positive message. It’s not all bad news, always,” said Rike Bolam of the University of Newcastle, the study’s lead author. “It is encouraging that some of the species we studied have recovered very well.”

Success achieved

Stuart Butchart, chief scientist at BirdLife and an honorary research fellow in the zoology department of the University of Cambridge, said: “These results show that despite the overall failure to meet the targets for conserving nature set through the UN a decade ago, significant success in preventing extinctions was achieved.

“It would be easy to feel conservation was a pointless exercise and there’s nothing we can do to slow the juggernaut down. Broadly speaking, we have the tools, we just need much greater resource and political will.”

Many of the most successful conservation efforts involve what science knows as the charismatic megafauna, crowdpuller species such as the tiger, which may attract attention and funding relatively easily in their struggle to escape extinction. Most species do not.

But Bolam and Butchart’s team identified a number of recurring and widely applicable themes in trying to stem the catastrophic race towards oblivion: the removal of invasive species, for example, the management of hunting and protection of important habitats.

“We have the tools, we just need much greater resource and political will”

Saving the web of life intact to hand on to future generations the richness of species on which humanity depends won’t be easy. Adam Vaughan, chief reporter at the magazine New Scientist, writes: “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.”

To give some idea of what works − and why − the magazine lists 10 survival success stories from around the world. It includes some obvious candidates, creatures which would be at the top of any keen zoologist’s bucket list − and probably most other people’s too. There’s the blue whale, obviously, its Antarctic sub-species reduced by hunters from an estimated 239,000 before industrial whaling started early in the last century to 360 by the early 1970s..

Yet by 2016 there were thought to be 4,500 in the southern ocean − something Jennifer Jackson at the British Antarctic Survey says has a wider lesson for conservation: “The blue whale recovery is symbolic of what humans can do if they just leave things alone.” Now, though, climate change is affecting the krill which are the whales’ main source of food. The possibility of extinction is returning.

China’s giant pandas declined fast in the 20th century. Political will and protected areas improved their prospects from “endangered” to “vulnerable.” The government 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 Qiang Xu of WWF-China. But the pandas still need much more time before they’re safe.

Mountain gorilla numbers have risen from about 250 in 1981 to 1,063 today. Things were looking hopeful until last month, when a gorilla in a US zoo was found to have contracted Covid-19. Poaching and forest clearance for agriculture remain potent threats.

People matter

Indus river dolphins were once found along the entire 3,000 kms (1,860 miles) of the Indus, but their range fell to 1,300 kms (800 m). By 2001, their numbers had dropped to 1,200, largely because they become stranded and die in irrigation canals.

Acoustic devices help to deter the dolphins from entering the canals, but educating fishing communities and recruiting local people for ecotourism and monitoring has been the key to saving about 1,800 animals, says Uzma Khan of WWF-Pakistan. “I learned you cannot do anything without communities.”

Not every species on the New Scientist’s list will avoid extinction, let alone the countless others which will live and die unremarked. Not all of those listed is even a poster girl (or boy) for conservation.

The world’s most endangered primate, the Hainan gibbon, is endemic to the Chinese island of the same name, and probably not very widely-known. By 1980 its population had fallen from 2,000 to a total barely able to ensure survival − just nine animals. There are now thought to be around a slightly more secure 33 altogether. Wish them luck. − Climate New Network