I confess to being guilty of doomscrolling—a wonderful new word finding its way into our vocabulary. It so accurately describes those, like me, who are prone to obsessively checking online feeds with the expectation that most of the news will be bad. A rising sense of dread compels the afflicted to keep searching. So much so that a self-perpetuating cycle develops that is hard to break. The utter tedium of watching the global media trying desperately to squeeze the very last analytical drop out of Covid-19, the U.S. election, and Brexit is doing an excellent job of breaking my insipient addiction.
Seriously though, it is all too easy to become mired in the ills of our time, especially in my focus areas of conservation and the environment. Let’s face it. They are pervasive and dire on a global scale—so much so that they crowd out any smatterings of encouraging, uplifting stories that peer over the parapet to wave their little flags of hope. But, I am pleased to say, any number of good news stories are out there if you take the time to do a bit of searching.
So, to make amends for my often gloomy frame of mind, here are my 12 favorite festive offerings for the year—one small patch of encouragement for each of the twelve days of Christmas.
1. Spies in the sky
Albatrosses are remarkable birds—capable of astounding feats of non-stop flight. They can travel 10,000 miles in a single journey and circumnavigate the globe in 46 days. Although they face serious threats to their own survival, they are now helping other species to survive.
Ships engaged in nefarious activities are challenging to track in the vastness of the oceans. Some even turn off their radio transponders to hide. But none can escape our Albatross spies in the sky.
Researchers have fitted 169 birds with radar detectors, and for about eight months, they tracked the birds that traversed a total area of roughly 18 million square miles. For a point of reference, that’s about five times the size of the United States.
The strategy works because albatrosses are attracted to vessels, especially fishing trawlers and long-liners, for the easy pickings they provide. During the test, the birds recorded radar blips from 353 ships, even though a hundred of them had their transponders turned off. And so, we now know that albatross spies can pinpoint suspicious vessels and alert authorities in real-time.
2. Victory for Alaska’s imperiled polar bears
Polar bears have a hard enough time coping with a rapidly warming Arctic. The Trump-sanctioned Liberty Project was yet another threat to their survival. It incorporates an artificial drilling island and underwater pipeline that would risk oil spills in the sensitive Beaufort Sea. So, hats off to the five major NGOs who successfully joined forces to challenge a project that spelled serious trouble for polar bears and Arctic communities.
In a landmark judgment, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the Administration had not only failed to properly consider the climate impacts of the project, but it had also presented an inaccurate and misleading analysis of the project’s outcome for the environment.
Furthermore, the court held that the Fish and Wildlife Service had violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to adequately analyze the project’s effects on polar bears.
3. The return of the Tasmanian devil
I once heard the Tasmanian Devil described as a “mean set of jaws with a leg at each corner.” If you’ve ever been lucky enough to see one, you’ll know what is meant. This chunky predator, the largest carnivorous marsupial, has been missing from the Australian mainland for some 3,500 years. Its demise was probably triggered by the arrival of dingos, a variety of gray wolves brought to Australia by Asian seafarers about 4,000 years ago.
The only remaining wild populations have been those on Tasmania, where dingos never managed to gain a stronghold. Now, after a decade of dingo eradication, the devils are being given a fresh start. In September this year, a relocation program began with the release of 11 Tasmanian Devils in Barrington Tops National Park north of Sydney.
4. A new ocean sanctuary
Only about eight percent of the world’s oceans are protected. And with pollution and overfishing decimating marine biodiversity, the race is on to increase the size and number of ocean sanctuaries. The global goal is to have 30 percent of the oceans under protection by 2030.
Happily, ocean conservation efforts have just been given a major boost—270,000 square miles (about 700,000 square kilometers) have been added to the inventory of marine protected areas. The government of Tristan da Cunha—a remote group of volcanic islands in the south Atlantic Ocean—has declared that 90 percent of its territorial waters will be closed to all human activity. The remaining 10 percent will be set aside as a sustainable fishing area for the island’s 260 residents to run a small lobster fishery certified by the Marine Stewardship Council.
5. Rhinos—the long road to recovery
These great, iconic beasts have suffered massive persecution at the hand of humans—there can hardly be a man, woman, or child on the planet that isn’t aware of their plight. In recent years alone, more than 8,500 rhinos have been killed for their horns.
Overall, however, the past 120 years have seen some remarkable achievements. For instance, White rhinos numbered no more than a hundred or so at the beginning of the 1900s. But now, notwithstanding the recent slaughter, there are about 18,000.
From a historic high of as many as a million, Black rhinos fell to 2,400 in the 1990s. The tide has turned, however, and they have now recovered to about 5,500.
Furthermore, the Indian rhino had been reduced to a mere handful at the end of the 18th century. Today, the population stands at about 3,600 in India’s far eastern states and across the border in Nepal.
6. Whales stage a comeback
When I was a kid in the 1950s, it would be very rare to see a whale along the South African coastline. Now the region is one of the best places in the world to see them. Isn’t it amazing how quickly wild species, indeed, whole ecosystems, can recover when left in peace?
For six decades up to the early 1980s, the global whaling industry decimated cetacean populations everywhere. Eventually, sanity prevailed, and in 1982 an international moratorium on whaling was declared. But for a handful of nations, including Japan and Canada, the world embraced the intervention.
Now, even the waters around South Georgia, once a teeming feeding ground in the deep South Atlantic, are witnessing the return of these magnificent creatures. And the critically endangered blue whale—the largest animal ever to have lived—has also returned. The species had been reduced to no more than three percent of its pre-whaling population, so its recovery is nothing short of miraculous.
7. Gorilla gains
Cross River gorillas (the most endangered of the gorilla subspecies) are found only in a tiny, remote forest corner along the Nigeria/Cameroon border. These great apes have been so persecuted that at one stage, it was thought that they had become extinct. Thankfully this was not the case, and we now know there are a precious 300 of them.
Not surprisingly, they are very human-shy. Often, the only signs of them are abandoned nests, dung, and their feeding trails. Imagine what a thrill it was when strategically placed camera traps not only caught glimpses of them moving around the forest of their Mbe Mountains stronghold but revealed the presence of so many youngsters. The population is far from being out of trouble, but at least we know that they are breeding and in good health.
8. Europe’s burgeoning bisons
Mention the word bison, and images of these ancient bovids ranging across the Great Plains of North America spring to mind. But bison in Europe? Indeed, yes. And the story of their return from the precipice of extinction is possibly even more dramatic than that of their American cousins.
The wisent, as the European bison is also known, is not as shaggy as the North American variety, and its horns are more like those of domestic cattle. Our knowledge about them is pretty skimpy as by the time biologists started studying them, only a mere 50 or so remained. And by 1927, the global population had dwindled to no more than 12. The wisent’s recovery is every bit as fascinating as that of the white rhino—the total worldwide population recorded in 2019 was around 7,500.
9. A vax for tigers too
Covid-19 vaccines may be dominating the news, but in the taiga forests of Russia’s eastern wilderness and in northern China, Siberian or Amur tigers are also in need of jab. Their threat comes not from the novel coronavirus plaguing human populations but from the canine distemper virus (CDV). Only about 550 tigers make up the entire population of this endangered cat, and the added burden of CDV could well bring the subspecies to its knees.
Initially, scientists thought that contact with domestic dogs was the problem, but it now seems that other local wildlife—the more abundant smaller species such as martens, badgers, and raccoon dogs—is the primary source.
That left only one viable option—using an injectable vaccine on the tigers.
Thankfully, researchers found that serum from tigers vaccinated in captivity can neutralize the CDV strain infecting wild tigers. Inoculating the entire tiger population would be impossible, but scientists reckon that even a vaccination rate as low as two tigers a year could reduce the tigers’ risk of extinction significantly. It seems that CDV in the Siberian tiger is a solvable problem—a rare piece of good news from the world of tiger conservation.
10. The panda’s progress
WWF’s giant panda logo is, without question, one of the most recognized symbols in the world. Beloved everywhere, yes. Cute and cuddly, yes. But don’t be fooled; this iconic carnivore turned vegetarian packs one of the most powerful bites of any animal.
Panda’s are one of the greatest conservation success stories of all time. Their conservation in China began way back in 1957. Excessive poaching in the 1980s, combined with deforestation, resulted in a severe decline in panda numbers, and for years the species was on the IUCN Red List. But conservation efforts persisted, and in 2016 the panda was officially moved to its current Vulnerable status.
Some 50 reserves have been established for pandas. But about a third of the total wild-living population—now standing at 1,864—live outside of these protected areas. So, we must remain alert to their fortunes.
11. Return of the red kites
On my frequent trips to Britain over many decades, I have had the pleasure of witnessing a remarkably successful bird project. Before 1990, there was one species you would not see in England or Scotland—the red kite. Although historically common, prolonged persecution as vermin had eliminated this beautiful raptor—only in Wales was there a small population.
Now, 30 years later, you would be hard pushed not to see red kites as you traipse along the footpaths around Stokenchurch in Buckinghamshire.
Even barrelling down the M40 on the way to Oxford, you will see dozens floating high above the traffic and often close up, too, as they swoop down to grab a morsel of roadkill.
The once-vanished kite now numbers 10,000 plus. They are thriving across a swathe of England, from the counties around London north to the Midlands and into Yorkshire. All this from a few birds from Spain being released in the Chiltern region in 1990. Another great example of how nature, given half the chance, will take the gap and once again thrive.
12. And still, we are finding new species
Considering the unprecedented rate of global habitat destruction, it is incredible that we are still finding creatures we knew nothing about. And it’s not just the tiny, microscopic stuff we’re talking about; we’ve even discovered a new whale. Yes, if researchers are right, a previously unknown species of beaked whale has been spotted in waters off Mexico’s western coast.
Moreover, scientists have just revealed no fewer than 20 new species from the Bolivian Andes. These include a venomous viper and a tiny frog less than half an inch long. Plants and animals not seen for decades were also rediscovered, among them the satyr butterfly last observed 98 years ago. Meanwhile, from the island of Madagascar, a new species of mouse lemur has revealed itself to science. The mouse lemurs are considered the tiniest primates in the world.
The list goes on and on as every year we find something new and astounding about life on our planet. There is so much life out there and so much to do to make sure we don’t lose any of it.
Happy holidays to all, and may 2121 herald ever more wonderful successes from the world of wildlife.
See you next year.