What with dire warnings about extinction rates, overshooting on the planet’s resources, and the knock-on effects of Covid-19, it is easy to slip into a state of despair about the environmental future of the world. But this would be wrong and a shameful disservice towards all the good people doing good things on behalf of nature. Rather, let’s celebrate these islands of hope, so here are a few of my favorites.
Mountain Gorillas live in only two places in Africa: Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the Virunga Massif sprawling across Rwanda, Uganda, and the DRC. Until the early 1900s, the outside world knew nothing of their existence, but before long, those twin scourges of hunting and habitat destruction had taken a terrible toll on these mountain-dwelling primates. But for their early champions such as George Schaller and Dian Fossey, we would almost certainly have lost these gentle giants. Even now, they remain endangered, but under the umbrella of organizations such as the International Gorilla Conservation Programme, and the protection of brave forest rangers, they have grown back from the brink to more than 1,000 individuals.
Three centuries of hunting almost put paid to the Southern Right Whale, and by 1935 when they finally became protected, only a few hundred remained of a species that once numbered in hundreds of thousands. Today they have recovered to more than 12,000, are growing at about seven percent a year, and are again a common sight cavorting in the coastal waters of South Africa and elsewhere in the southern hemisphere. The real turning point for all whales came with the international moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986 (only Japan and Iceland continue to exploit them). The story of the Southern Right Whale is an excellent example of how species can recover when humans modify their behavior.
Few, other than ardent twitchers, would know of the Echo Parakeet, the only surviving parrot on the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and Reunion. Like its famous Mauritian cousin, the Dodo, this avian jewel was headed for the extinction list. But over the past four decades, with a lot of help and determination on the part of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, it has recovered from no more than a dozen individuals to nearly 800 birds in the wild.
Of course, no list of mine would be complete without mention of rhinos. When it comes to these horned wonders, we understandably focus squarely on the havoc wrought by the most recent rhino poaching onslaught. The white rhino, currently the most numerous of all the rhino species, has borne the brunt of this horror. Thousands of White Rhinos have been slaughtered, but the dark irony is that it has been the species’ very success that has made it such a target. In the 1960s, there were only about 1,000 White Rhinos. But, an astonishing recovery took place. Spurred on by the vision and determination of the late Ian Player and his colleagues, numbers climbed and climbed, eventually topping 20,000 around 2010. Although numbers have dipped since then, they will grow again as poaching is curbed.
One of my all-time favorites is the story of the Great Green Wall. This African-led ambition aims to grow an 8,000-kilometer strip of forest across the entire width of Africa from Senegal in the west to the Red Sea in the east. And, as it happens, it will hopefully disrupt the southwards creep of desertification and raise the productivity of the Sahel. The project started a decade ago and has progressed along 15 percent of the route. It is already bringing life back to Africa’s degraded landscapes, providing food security, jobs, and a reason to stay for the millions who live along its path. By the time the wall reaches the Red Sea, it will be the largest living structure on the planet—three times the size of the Great Barrier Reef.
And talking of the Red Sea, it seems to be one of the few places on earth doing rather well despite our impact on the planet. How so? Well, coral reefs in most regions are struggling against rising ocean temperatures, but the reefs in the Gulf of Aqaba appear to be thriving despite sea temperatures rising faster here than the global average. No mass bleaching events have occurred in the northern Red Sea, and now the race is on to find out why and to see if this knowledge can help elsewhere. As scientists work to safeguard this coral garden of hope, could nature also be the catalyst for peace in a notoriously conflict-rife region where conventional diplomacy has failed?
Now there’s a foundation for hope.
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