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When we save a wildlife species and its habitat, we save the livelihoods and quality of life of people too.

By June 2, 2021Editorial

Caption: Giant river otter, South America. © PhotocechCZ / Shutterstock

We hardly need reminding that Earth’s ecosystems have been seriously compromised at the hand of human beings. So, it is entirely appropriate that the theme for this year’s World Environment Day on Sunday (June 6) is “Ecosystem Restoration.” More importantly, however, this Friday (June 4) marks the start of a more sustained event—the UN’s Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. The project aims to “prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems on every continent and in every ocean.” Ambitious indeed, but a worthy challenge.

Fixing Nature is complex, so complex that we often feel helpless, unable to make a difference no matter how deeply we want to and how hard we try. Sadly, faced with what seems an impossibly difficult mountain to climb, we often fail to even try. But we don’t have time to sit back and do nothing. So, in the hope of releasing us from a state of catatonic withdrawal, I thought I would share six stories demonstrating how seemingly modest actions can have surprisingly encouraging and often unexpected knock-on results.

Justifiably, captive wildlife breeding often gets bad press, especially where large predators such as lions and tigers are concerned.

Sometimes, however, it plays a vital role in bringing species back from the brink of extinction. Such is the case with the diminutive pygmy hog. In the mid-1900s, we thought it had been lost forever, but the species was rediscovered in 1971 after a fire in the Barnardi Wildlife Sanctuary in India’s Assam Province. Unfortunately, early attempts to breed the species in captivity failed due to inexperience and numbers in the wild continued to decline because of pressure on the hog’s grassland habitat. In 1996, however, six wild hogs were taken into a new breeding program initiated by the Pygmy Hog Conservation Project (PHCP). Since then, the “family” of captive pigs has grown substantially, and over the last seven years, a total of 85 pygmy hogs have been successfully released into Sonai Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary and Orang National Park.

Happily, not only has the wild population been boosted by 35 percent, but the range of the species has also increased. Even so, there are only 300–400 of the 10-inch-tall pigs in the wild and the species remains Critically Endangered. Without the intervention of the PHCP, its future would have been bleak indeed. Furthermore, the pygmy hog is entirely dependent on India’s Terai grasslands, a seriously threatened ecosystem. So, saving the tiny pig also saves the grassland and the tigers and elephants that share this habitat.

Officially established in October 2014, Argentina’s Impenetrable National Park partially opened to the public in early 2018. This crucial tract sprawls across the largely semi-arid Gran Chaco ecoregion, a bastion against the march of deforestation. More than 7,2 million acres of Gran Chaco’s forest were lost between 2010 and 2018 as farmers cleared more and more land for cattle and soy. Hunting is also taking a toll on wildlife, and wildfires burned through more than 1,000 hectares of park forest in late 2019. And so, the park has certainly not been without its challenges in its formative years.

The Gran Chaco is home to an estimated 600 species of vertebrates, including jaguars and giant anteaters, and plans are underway to reintroduce marsh deer, locally extinct in most of their Argentinian range. Therefore, it must have been a major fillip when researchers spotted a giant river otter swimming along the Bermejo River that runs through the park. It was the first sighting in Argentina since the 1980s when the species was declared locally extinct—they hadn’t been seen in the Bermejo for over a hundred years.

The giant river otters are top predators in the freshwater ecosystems they inhabit and can reach six feet in length and weigh some 75 pounds. Conservation groups have been trying to reintroduce the species to Argentina’s waterways since 2018, so this sighting is hugely encouraging for those who believe that the river system can still support them. No one seems sure how this single male got there, but he did, and hopefully, many more will follow.

Restoring tropical forests is a monumental challenge, but it can be done. This has been proved in Indonesia’s Kalimantan Provence on the island of Borneo, where a community-supported program to plant a million trees was completed in 2020. And it hasn’t stopped there. Now the 100 Million Trees Program is underway! The project includes planting leguminous Sengon trees on degraded, formerly deforested areas. They are fast-growing, strengthen the soil and revitalize the degraded soil with nitrogen. In the process, erosion is controlled, improving growth conditions for other plants.

In the rural areas of Central Kalimantan, large swathes of rainforest have already been lost, while the remnants are under pressure from a growing population, legal and illegal logging, gold mining, and palm oil expansion. As a result, rural people are badly affected—their livelihoods depend on small-scale forestry, agriculture, rubber, and other cash crops harvested from the rainforest.

Rehabilitating degraded land to a near-natural and sustainable state supporting fruit and vegetable production has created a new source of food and income for the local population. And the use of fast-growing planted timber in the local wood industry relieves pressure on natural forests, thereby helping to protect Borneo’s rainforests and their biodiversity, including the critically endangered orangutan.

Cheetah, the world’s fastest land animal, was declared extinct in India in 1952. But in November this year, the species will make a comeback in the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh. Madhya Pradesh has a long conservation history and was once home to cheetahs. The protected area is suitable for the release of the cats as it has a good prey base of four-horned antelopes, chinkara, nilgai, wild boar, spotted deer, and sambar. The project is taking place under the supervision of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII).

An enclosure is currently being prepared for about 10 cheetahs, including five females, that have been donated by South Africa’s Endangered Wildlife Trust. Kuno already has a successful animal translocation track record—tigers were reintroduced in 2009.

Sadly, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, riven by decades of regional conflict, seldom offers up a positive wildlife story. However, conservationists in this massive, tropical forest basin are celebrating. The DRC government has officially recognized three new community-managed forest concessions that give local communities ownership and management rights over their forests.

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, which has been working with landowners in the area since 2012, assisted with the formal recognition process and has entered into a 25-year agreement to help them develop and implement sustainable plans for the forest home of the critically endangered Grauer’s gorilla.

In the last 50 years, the range of the subspecies (also known as the eastern lowland gorilla) has decreased from 8,100 square miles—about the size of the state of Massachusetts—to about 4,600 square miles today. It now possibly lives in only 13 percent of its historical range. There were nearly 17,000 eastern lowland gorillas in the mid-1990s, but scientists estimate that the population has declined by more than 50% since then. An accurate accounting of the animals has been impossible for many years because of violence in the region.

The concessions, collectively called the Nkuba Conservation Area, show how it is possible to protect biodiverse wild spaces and the animals that live in them while at the same time building strong, supportive human communities. “In some areas, this community-based model may become a more practical, cost-effective way to preserve wild spaces than traditional national parks,” said Dr. Tara Stoinski, CEO and chief scientist of the Fossey Fund.

Finally, Zimbabwe is planning to bring back rhinos to Gonarezhou National Park in the south-eastern reaches of the country. They were wiped out by poachers in 1991 when the country’s total rhino population crashed to just 100. Now the Zimbabwean population is reportedly some 1,000 strong.

Gonarezhou forms part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, linking Gonarezhou with South Africa’s Kruger National Park and the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique. But for the Covid-19 pandemic, the reintroduction of both black and white rhinos would have happened last year. It hasn’t been revealed how many rhinos will be reintroduced or where they will come from to avoid unwarranted attention from poachers.

Such caution is understandable, given the region’s history. The original black rhino population in the area was wiped out sometime between the 1930s and 1940s. Then, a reintroduction project between 1969 and 1977 brought 77 black rhinos back into the area. This population grew to about 140 before civil war in neighboring Mozambique caused Gonarezhou’s closure to the public. Tragically, by 1994, the black rhino population went extinct for the second time.

Some 39 game rangers have graduated to step up surveillance in Gonarezhou, mostly from local communities. Their training in weaponry, foot and arms drill, tracking, battle tactics, map reading, radio communication, and anti-poaching operations, among other things, was sponsored by the Gonerezhou Conservation Trust, a partnership between the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority and the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FSZ) in Germany.

These are but a few random examples of thousands of vitally important projects in ecosystems worldwide mostly underfunded and only happening because a few dedicated people refuse to give up. We salute them all and urge everyone everywhere to offer support in whatever way they can. And always remember, when we save a wildlife species and its habitat, we save the livelihoods and quality of life of people too.