New in Nature

Conservation success stories of 2020

Despite a truly trying year, several conservation missions have proven a success.

2020 has been a difficult year.  What with Coronavirus, Brexit, enduring racism necessitating the Black Lives Matter movement and World War 3 seeming dangerously imminent, it has been easy to feel increasingly hopeless about the world that we live in.  In the field of wildlife conservation specifically, the Covid-19 pandemic has been particularly disheartening, placing a well-needed spotlight on the horrors of the global wildlife trade, while the bushfires that raged across Australia devastated tens of millions of acres and a billion animals and left hundreds of species in need of emergency intervention.

I myself have become progressively obsessive about checking the news several times a day since the beginning of 2020’s downward spiral and, while I think it is crucial to be aware of current affairs and not to turn a blind eye, I have also become conscious of the damaging impact of learning about tragic and quite frankly terrifying occurrences while feeling somewhat powerless to help.  I also believe it is important to realise that the news consists of the most extreme and usually negative stories and that sometimes we must actively seek out the positive to remind ourselves that more affirming reports do exist.  Below, I have collected five global conservation achievement stories in the hope that they remind you (and myself!) that 2020 has also been a year of success, with select wildlife still managing to prevail amid a year of pandemics, prejudice and preposterous politics.

THAILAND – Triumph for Tigers

In a well-needed victory for the endangered tiger, new photographs and video footage were released on World Tiger Day 2020 disclosing sightings of three new Indochinese individuals in a region of western Thailand for the first time in 4 years.  The high-definition captures were attained using remote camera traps employed as part of an ongoing wildlife monitoring initiative.  The project’s partners, which consist of the country’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP), Panthera – a global wildcat conservation organisation – and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), hope that the sightings are a positive indication that they will be able to achieve the country’s goal of raising tiger populations by 50% by 2022.

Before this footage, indochinese tigers had not been caught on video for four years in western Thailand. © Panthera

According to the release, tiger densities in western Thailand are so low that conservationists cannot produce an accurate estimate of animal numbers in the area, underlining the fragility of the population and the significance of the recent sightings.  The repeated detections in new areas suggests that appropriate habitat and prey exists for this small but crucial population, and that the collaborative conservation efforts are succeeding at a time when the species need them most.

Watch the footage here.

NIGERIA – Rare Gorillas Spotted

Another exciting wildlife capture is the new images of Cross River gorillas in Nigeria.  The Cross River is one of the most endangered gorilla subspecies in the world and has suffered decades of persecution, with estimated numbers being around 100 in Nigeria and 300 in the mountainous forest expanse extending over the border into Cameroon.  The camera-trap images were taken in the Mbe mountains in south-east Nigeria by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and feature seven individuals, including infants.

Only 300 Cross River gorillas are known to live in the wild. © WCS

The gorillas are rarely spotted, residing often in the deepest and least accessible areas of terrain, and are believed to be very cautious of humans following a long history of maltreatment.  Once thought to be extinct due to aggressive poaching, the species was rediscovered in the 1980s.  The new images are believed to be the surest sign of the Cross River’s gradual recovery, an encouraging indication that the species is now well protected and successfully reproducing.  A team of 16 guards from local communities are continuing to conduct patrols of the sanctuary area to protect the gorillas and other wildlife, monitoring the gorillas’ activity by identifying their nests, dung and feeding trails.

UK – Bison Will Be Back

Wild bison are set to be reintroduced for the first time in 6000 years owing to a £1m project to restore local British wildlife announced this year.  Kent Wildlife Trust and the Wildwood Trust are organising the project which will import and release a small herd of European Bison to Blean Woods, a former pine plantation bordering Canterbury.  The European Bison, which will be reintroduced to the area by spring 2022, is the closest living relation to the ancient Steppe Bison that once roamed Britain.  The herd will come from the Netherlands or Poland, where previous reintroductions have proved fruitful, and will include one male and three females, with natural breeding expected to increase its size.

Bison lived on British lands 6000 years ago, but were driven out by hunting and habitat loss. © Szczepan Klejbuk/Shutterstock

The reintroduction will be made possible by an award from the People’s Postcode Lottery Fund and is intended both to restore the natural ecosystem of the area’s notable ancient woodlands and to help store carbon by naturally regenerating a former pine wood plantation.  The bison will act as ‘ecosystem engineers’, creating ‘sand baths’ and felling trees by rubbing against them and consuming the bark, with this unique grazing method creating a healthy mixture of woodland, scrub and glades and thus boosting insect, bird and plant life.

CHINA – Protection for Pangolins

The world’s most trafficked mammal has also celebrated a small but significant success this year.  China has removed pangolins from the official list of ingredients approved for use in traditional Chinese medicine treatments (TCM), with the decision coming soon after the species’ protected status was elevated to critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.  As many as 200,000 endangered pangolins are killed each year in Asia for their scales and meat and over 130 tonnes of scales, live and dead animals were seized in cross-border trafficking busts last year, a figure which is estimated to represent roughly 400,000 animals according to conservation group WildAid.

Pangolins are trafficked for the scales, meat and skins. © Arief Budi Kusuma/Shutterstock

The COVID-19 pandemic has also placed a spotlight on the illegal trade of pangolins, since some scientists have found a similar coronavirus in these animals and have suggested that they may have served as an intermediary in the transmission from bats to humans.  China banned the consumption of wild animals following the coronavirus outbreak, but exemptions exist and the cultural roots of China’s use of wild animals run deep, not just for food but also for medicine, clothing, decoration and even pets, meaning further legislation will be needed to fully protect wildlife.

AUSTRALIA – Bilby Baby Boom

Across the pond, New South Wales has welcomed a new generation of bilbies for the first time in over a century.  Bilbies are small nocturnal marsupials native to Australia, the populations of which have been devastated over the last 200 years due to predation by foxes and feral cats, making them vulnerable to extinction.  The Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) and New South Wales Government announced the arrival of the joeys born at Mallee Cliffs National Park following the release of 50 adult bilbies into a feral predator-free breeding area last year as part of the ‘Saving Our Species’ conservation programme.

Baby bilbies can also be known as joeys. © Bradley Dennien/Shutterstock

When the bilbies were brought to Mallee Cliffs, there were 17 pouch young that were not marked for identification.  Routine surveys to monitor population health later recorded 21 unmarked individuals, meaning that several were conceived and born at the location and will ultimately be released into a 9570 hectare fenced zone at Mallee Cliffs that will be the largest feral predator-free sanctuary on mainland Australia.  In addition to Mallee Cliffs, AWC has also released bilbies and other regionally extinct species into the Pilliga National Park, making up an ambitious rewilding programme to return 10 regionally extinct and nationally threatened mammal species to NSW.

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