The year 2016 was both good and bad for wildlife. What will 2017 hold? I spoke with conservation experts around the globe to get their predictions for the coming year, and added a few of my own.
Let’s start with the bad news: We’re going to lose several species in 2017. Most will likely be plants or animals that will be declared extinct years or even decades after they were last seen—it takes that long to give up hope after a lot of searching—but we may also see a couple of very public extinctions happening in real-time. My own predictions: the vaquita porpoise and the northern white rhino. Both of these species might last out the year, but their chances aren’t exactly great.
You lose some, you win some. Conservationists are working hard to reverse the losses being felt by species around the globe and we’re sure to see several of those efforts pay off in 2017. As just one example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) pointed to their goal of eliminating invasive yellow crazy ants from Johnson Atoll in the Pacific Ocean by the end of this year, an effort that will save the 15 species of seabird that nest there. FWS’s reintroduction of fishers to the Pacific Northwest is likely to be another early success for this year.
The Trump administration loomed large over most peoples’ predictions for 2017. “We're going to see a massive attack on protections for clean air and water, climate, public lands and wildlife from the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress,” says Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity. Experts from Defenders of Wildlife and other organizations echoed those sentiments.
Local & International
No matter what happens on the U.S. federal level, many of the experts I spoke with predicted that we may find local bright spots. “I think in the coming year we’re going to continue the strategy of working with farmers, cities, companies, counties and states,” says Scott Hoffman Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. “There are of people, whether it’s bees or butterflies or freshwater mussels, who want to do local conservation. I don’t see that desire changing.”
Black pointed to insect conservation as a key example of how much progress is already being made on the local level. “We had 13 different cities ban the use of neonic pesticides on city property,” he says. “It was a move away from federal action and toward local action. That’s significant to me, because we weren’t getting much traction on the federal side.”
This is about much more than insects. “States and private business are committing and doing more on climate change, particularly on mitigation,” says Sue Lieberman, vice president for international policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), adding that countries outside the U.S. are also making great strides in this area, even as the U.S. begins to lag behind.
Tech will play an important role in wildlife conservation this year. We have already seen the deployment of several impressive new devices to monitor and track animals over the past few years, something that experts say will start to blossom in 2017. WWF experts pointed out devices ranging from infrared cameras to drones (UAVs) to seismic underground sensors which will help to combat illegal wildlife poaching and human-wildlife conflict. The organization has also recently hired their first in-house conservation engineer to help invent even more wildlife-saving technology.
The world’s forests, in all likelihood, will continue to be chopped down at record paces—often illegally—in 2017. “We are already aware of attempts by a Chinese company to destroy a standing forest in West Kalimantan, Borneo that is inhabited by an estimated 750 to 1500 orangutans,” says Richard Zimmerman, executive director of Orangutan Outreach. “Sunga Putri is a peat forest that cannot be legally destroyed, but nevertheless the destruction has already begun. This is not a unique situation but it is particularly egregious because it is clearly against the law and a result of local corruption.”
But reforestation, or protecting certain parts of some landscapes, could gain some protection. Experts from Defenders of Wildlife predicted that wildlife corridors, which would connect intact landscapes and allow for easier migration and species population flow, will become a greater topic of interest over the next year.
Elephants may finally get the break they needed in 2017 with the just-announced impending closure of China’s legal ivory market. “That’s going to be a game-changer,” says WCS’s Lieberman. “There’s a lot of effort and political will going into anti-poaching and anti-trafficking, but as long as China’s market is open, we’re not going to win. But when China closes its market they can be the hero.”
Other species may also benefit. “A lot of things are happening,” Lieberman says. “We’re seeing some countries pressure other countries. I’m hoping there will be some big busts on criminal networks this year.” She also predicted that aquatic species will benefit. “There’s going to be more attention on ocean conservation in the new year,” she says. “I hope that will lead to more protection and cracking down on illegal fishing.”
Meanwhile, some heavily trafficked species will probably gain extra protections. Zhou Fei, head of TRAFFIC’s China office in Beijing, predicted that both pangolins and rosewood will be heavily regulated in 2017 to coincide with new protections enacted last year by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
The Year is Just Beginning
Lieberman had the last word on all of these predications: “You can call me at this time next year and we’ll see if these things happened,” she says.
Previously in Extinction Countdown: