The news about endangered species tends to be pretty bleak. That definitely proved true in 2016, but the past year also saw quite a few successes. Here are some of the best news stories from 2016, as chosen from the “Extinction Countdown” archives and by experts and conservation groups around the globe.
Trafficking and Trade
The illegal wildlife trade affects hundreds of species around the world and has put quite a few on the fast track toward extinction. Luckily, several of them received important support at this fall’s meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which banned or limited international trade for several imperiled species, including pangolins, the African grey parrot, and several kinds of sharks. “Almost all of the decisions were really based on science,” says Susan Lieberman, vice president for international policy for the Wildlife Conservation Society. “You have to celebrate when that happens.”
Of course, what makes the CITES action good news is that we’re stepping up to help species that have become critically imperiled. “It’s good news that governments are recognizing the risks these species are in,” Lieberman says. “It’s bad news because the situation for these species is really horrible.”
Outside of CITES, elephants also got a boost when the U.S. adopted tighter regulations in the trade of ivory. “The new regulations will make it much harder for criminals to use the United States as a staging ground for illegal ivory trade,” Ginette Hemley, senior vice president of wildlife conservation at WWF, said this past June. “They also send a strong signal to the international community that the U.S. is committed to doing its part to save elephants in the wild.”
A Foxy Recovery
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had a number of Endangered Species Act success stories this year, but the best was probably April's announcement that three subspecies of island fox native to California's Channel Islands had recovered and are now no longer considered to be at risk. This marked the fasted recovery under the ESA to date and reflects 12 years of intense conservation efforts by several dedicated partners on the federal, state and local level.
Some of the biggest species and most recognizable species on the planet had a few minor victories in 2016. Most recently, the recognition that giraffes are an endangered species made news around the world. That might seem like bad news, but the public outcry may be what we need to finally get conservation efforts moving in the right direction.
Zhou Fei, Head of TRAFFIC’s China Office in Beijing, says one of the best stories of the year is that giant panda populations improved enough that the IUCN Red List now considers the iconic animals to be no longer endangered. (They’re now listed as vulnerable to extinction.) Others have expressed worry that this categorization change will lessen our ability to protect pandas moving forward, but it’s still pretty good news.
Orangutans had a bad year (more on that in our “worst of 2016” article), but there were bright spots. “The best orangutan conservation story of 2016 is the successful continuation of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation's release program,” says Richard Zimmerman, executive director of Orangutan Outreach. “They've now released 250 orangutans into safe, secure forests. The majority of these orangutans were rescued orphans who were rehabilitated over many years. Due to a lack of available forest they were forced to remain in cages and wait to be released.” Several other rescue and release expeditions in other locations helped even more of these imperiled apes, although Zimmerman noted that “there are still hundreds of orangutans waiting to be released and we expect the expeditions to continue in coming years. These releases are quite expensive and require a lot of coordination on the ground.”
Finally, experts from the NRDC pointed to a “decades-in-the-making breakthrough agreement on sonar safeguards for whales and our oceans.” With so many cetacean species in decline, this easing of at least one of the pressures affecting them can only help.
Our feathered friends got several bits of good news this year. Most notably, five captive-born Hawaiian crows—a species that went extinct in the wild decades ago—made their triumphant return to a protected Hawaiian park a few days ago. Expect to hear a lot more about this story in the coming year.
Another Hawaiian species, the Akikiki, has been immortalized in space, with an asteroid permanently named after the tiny endangered birds. That may not have directly helped efforts to conserve the species, but it did bring them international (if not interstellar) recognition.
Meanwhile, in New Zealand, every single kakapo (a large, flightless, critically endangered parrot) has had its genome sequenced, an effort that will help to increase the species’ population in the coming decades. (This year’s record breeding season also gave kakapo numbers a much-needed boost.)
The Little Guys
A few smaller creatures belong on our list, as well. “This year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finally took bees seriously,” says Scott Hoffman Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Seven species of Hawaiian yellow-faced bees received endangered species status, and similar protection has been proposed for the rusty-patched bumblebee. “That’s pretty big,” Black says. “We’ve never had a bee listed before.”
Amphibians, many of which are being wiped out by the deadly chytrid fungus, had at least one success story this year. “I was really heartened by the study that Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs are holding their own against the chytrid fungus,” says Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity.
Meanwhile, desert tortoises and other species benefitted from the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which promoted clean energy development in the California desert while protecting local wildlife. “This plan will enable us to combat climate change, which is a threat to wildlife, habitat and landscapes worldwide, while preserving important habitats,” said Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife. “This is a blueprint for other states, the nation and the world to consider as we all work together to fight climate change and race against extinction.”
Land & Seas
On a broader level, many species benefitted from efforts to preserve entire ecosystems. “Globally, protected areas continue to expand, both on land and especially in the ocean,” says Stuart Pimm, Doris Duke Professor of Conservation at Duke University and president of Saving Species. “There is widespread agreement that these are the best solution to protect biodiversity.” Pimm reports that his own team’s efforts are paying off. “We don’t help our donors buy a lot of land, but we help them buy land strategically. We are now connecting formerly isolated fragments of habitat to create large, continuous habitats in Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, India, and Sumatra.”
Obviously there were other endangered species successes over the course of 2016. What would you add to this list? Add your comments below, or discuss things on Twitter under the hashtag #extinction2016.