Saving our endangered wildlife—a mix of despair, celebration, and gritty determination.

By May 19, 2021Editorial

Caption: Baby mountain gorilla. © Asaf Weizman / Shutterstock

So, this Friday (May 21) is World Endangered Species Day, and I find myself, once again, at the edge of despair. For a start, there is such a clutter of these “world days” for wildlife and the environment that I wonder if they serve any real purpose at all—literally every second day, a reminder pops up for the next one in line. And then I grapple with what to say. On the one hand, I want to write uplifting things about conservation—recount success stories and how well we’re supposed to be doing. But then comes a descending curtain of gloom as I feel the weight of the mess we seem to be making of the natural world.

I’ll try to explain.

I was overjoyed to learn that beavers are being reintroduced across the UK after 400 years of extinction due to trapping for their fur, scent sacs, and meat. Not only are they beautiful, intriguing animals in their own right, but they are consummate engineers and while they change their environment to suit their needs, they also create wetland habitats for dozens of other species. No less stirring is the story of the mountain gorilla. At one stage, the population had collapsed to a few hundred individual’s and extinction was imminent. However, superhuman efforts have not only halted the slide but now the “gorillas in the mist” possibly number slightly more than 1,000. Undoubtedly, their future remains precarious due to habitat encroachment, potential disease transmission from humans, poaching, and civil unrest. But at least they now have more of a chance.

Even more dramatic is the Iberian Lynx’s story. In 2002 fewer than 100 survived in the wild, only a quarter of which were breeding-age females. Again, conservation has triumphed and wild numbers in Spain and Portugal are nudging towards 1000-strong. Sometimes we also see brave interventions on a grander scale that benefit entire ecosystems. Last year, the tiny community of Tristan da Cunha, one of the most remote inhabited islands on Earth, voted to ban bottom-trawling fishing, deep-sea mining, and other harmful activities from its waters. In doing so, almost 270,000 square miles of the Southern Atlantic Ocean became one of the world’s largest marine protected areas and threatened species, including seven-gill sharks, the yellow-nosed albatross, the Atlantic petrel, and rockhopper penguins, have found sanctuary.

These are not isolated stories; there are many like them, each a tribute to dedication and unrelenting hard work. But they are ultimately the few high points set against the relentless drag of an ebbing tide on the natural world as we know it. Or so it seems.

There were possibly about 100,000 wild tigers in 1900, but now despite our best efforts, there are somewhere between 2,154 and 3,159 mature individuals in the wild and declining across a mere 76 fragmented locations. Three of the tiger’s nine subspecies have been lost, three are critically endangered, and three are endangered. Given continuing poaching for illegal trade in skins, bones, meat, and tonics is a primary threat as well as conflict with farmers and industry, the future of tigers seems far from rosy. That there are roughly 400,000 square miles of tiger habitat unoccupied by the regal cat speaks for itself. And if the tiger’s future seems bleak, that of the critically endangered Saola is truly desperate. Down to no more than a few hundred at most on the border between Vietnam and Laos, this antelope-cattle species almost disappeared before we knew it existed as it only came to our attention in 1992. The greatest threat to Saola is hunting. Ironically it isn’t a target species. The animal is snared incidentally (like by-catch in the fishing industry) in the intense pursuit of other species valued in the region’s wildlife trade.

And what about the madness around America’s wolves? These intelligent, highly social apex predators are crucial in driving evolution and balancing ecosystems. They once roamed across North America and numbered some two million individuals. By the 1960s, however, they had been exterminated but for two locations. Conservation actions came in the nick of time, and numbers began to rise once more. Now, what should be celebrated as a conservation success, faces a new calamity. The hunting and ranching community in Idaho has successfully lobbied for a law that could lead to killing 90 percent of the state’s 1,500 wolves, despite heavy criticism by environmental advocates. The rationale, if you can call it that, is to reduce attacks on livestock and to boost deer and elk herds. Anything goes—hunting, trapping and snaring, chasing down wolves on snowmobiles, and shooting them from helicopters, are just some of the killing options open to the exterminators. 

Then there is the poaching of pangolins at an intensity that beggars belief. These inoffensive creatures of the forests and savannas of Asia and Africa are the most trafficked mammals in the world. Millions are lost every year, cruelly trapped and transported, alive and dead, for their meat and scales. The scales, which make up about 20 percent of the animal’s body weight, are in high demand for traditional Chinese medicine. Belief in their purported curative powers is widespread, despite no scientific backing for any of them. Like rhino horn, pangolin scales are little more than keratin—the same material in hair and fingernails.

Such individual tragedies are repeated throughout the world in almost every habitat. We don’t even get to hear about many of them, lost as they are behind the veil of wholesale forest destruction, the conversion of land for food production, the extraction of minerals, the horrendous illegal trade in wild animals, and the rape of the oceans. Such are the depredations wrought by these activities that in darker moments our attempts to “save” species seem almost futile.

Don’t get me wrong. We should and must celebrate the determination and selfless energy that so many biologists, conservation scientists, and ordinary people invest in saving threatened species and fighting for improvements in the natural world. I salute them all in the certain knowledge that without their collective efforts over the past five decades or so, we would be accelerating down the slope to extinction for so many more species than is actually the case. There is no hyperbole in this statement; it is a plain, simple fact. And I certainly haven’t just plucked it out of the air.

One of the most influential documents about the state of our Earth is WWF’s Living Planet Report—2020 marked the 13th edition of this biennial publication from WWF. The report gives us a valuable window into the natural world through the Living Planet Index (LPI) produced by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). Since 1970 this tool, which draws on the contributions of 125 global experts, has tracked the fortunes of almost 21,000 populations of more than 4,000 vertebrate species. The central finding is stark—over 46 years, the populations of these species have declined on overage by 68 percent. Freshwater habitats have fared the worst—here, species’ populations have crashed by some 84 percent. So, as nice as it is to spread the good news, we have to do so against the backdrop of WWF’s statement: “The findings of the Living Planet Report are clear. Our relationship with nature is broken.” 

Broken. And if this critical relationship is broken, how do we fix it? Can we fix it?

Yes, we can. But (and there are many buts) first, we have to have a clear idea of what Nature is. In other words, we need an inventory of the living world, including the plants, animals, and the landscapes in which they live. The Herculean task of auditing the natural world began in 1964 when the International Union for Conservation of Nature started compiling its Red List of Threatened Species. This resource has evolved into the world’s most comprehensive information source on the global extinction risk status of animal, fungus, and plant species. It is a powerful tool now used by all in the global conservation movement, from government agencies to scientists, students, and the business community. The IUCN Red List is, quite simply, indispensable.

That said, however, the long, laborious journey of cataloging Earth’s bounty has only just begun.

At one point, the number of species on Earth was estimated at anywhere between three million and 100 million. Then, a far more precise estimate was published in 2011, and we now believe that there are about 8,7 million species on Earth: 6,5 million on land and 2,2 million in the oceans. The formal naming and classification of species began 253 years ago and since then, about 1,25 million species (+/- one million on land and about 250,000 in the oceans) have been described. (About 700,000 more have probably been described but have yet to reach the central databases.) So far, 134,400 species have been assessed by the Red List coordinators, with some 37,400 of them sadly threatened with extinction. As impressive as this achievement is, we are clearly just touching the tip of the iceberg when it comes to naming, describing, and assessing all the life forms on Earth. 

Again, the situation seems desperate. So many species populations are declining at a frightening pace. Habitat destruction appears out of hand and we don’t even have a complete inventory of what we have left in Nature’s cave of treasures. But is the picture really as gloomy as it seems to be? Perhaps not?

I came across an article by Hannah Ritchie, a geoscientist with Our World in Data, a wonderfully informative site that is now firmly on my go-to resource list. Richie brings a more optimistic view of the Living Planet Index, starting with the observation that there is a tendency to assume that because the average decline in species populations is some 68 percent, all of the world’s wildlife is struggling. But this is not the case.

As Ritchie notes: “Across all of the taxonomic groups, there is almost a 50-50 split: around half of populations are in decline, and half are growing. This tells us a very different story from the single index figure.”  

That this perspective is more hopeful than the one presented by the index is not the point. As Ritchie so rightly contends, if we understand this different story, the chances of saving the more endangered species are much improved. “There’s no point in misplacing resources towards populations that are flourishing at the expense of populations on the brink of extinction,” she notes. “We can only direct our attention towards the most endangered populations if we know what they are in the first place.”

That about half the studied species are increasing doesn’t mean that we can take our eye off the ball. And we can’t escape the unpalatable fact that if populations are declining on average by 68 percent, then the magnitude of declining populations has to be far greater than that of the increasing ones. Nevertheless, it suggests that we are doing some things right, which could have encouraging results if replicated for the populations in trouble.

So, despite all the doom and gloom, the extinction of wildlife species is not inevitable. Thank goodness. “Imagine,” as Ritchie says, “if, after decades of conservation efforts, all of our wildlife was in decline. We might see it as futile to even try. Support for conservation relies on there being wildlife that needs saving. But it also relies on the belief that interventions can actually make a difference. If we didn’t see any positive trends, we would have nothing to learn about what we can do. The Living Planet project provides an essential resource to get us started on this.”

Feeling that we can make a difference gives us the resolve to carry on, to find the funding for ongoing research. Also, it fires our determination to negotiate planet-friendly treaties and to write the laws to enforce them. It encourages us to pursue people who commit crimes against nature, whether governments, industry, criminal gangs, or individuals, and bring them to book. Above all, however, we need to find the collective will to stand back and give Nature the time and space to breathe and heal itself.