Tigers, elephants, polar bears and giant pandas got a lot of press in 2016, but many other stories about endangered species and conservation slipped under the radar. Here are a few things you may have missed in the past year, as chosen by conservation experts around the world.
Apes & Forests
Search for the word “apes” on Google News right now and you’re going to find a lot of stories about the upcoming movie, “War for the Planet of the Apes.” Well, it turns out that real apes are facing a hidden war of their own. “Almost every one of the subspecies of great apes in Africa has been categorized as endangered or critically endangered,” says Craig Sholley Senoir, Vice President of the African Wildlife Foundation. In fact, as I wrote back in September, four of the world’s six great ape species—covering all gorillas and orangutans—are now critically endangered. The rest are on their way.
This decline in ape populations has many causes, but deforestation remains paramount among them. The AWF also picked deforestation and logging in Central Africa as one of the most neglected conservation news stories of 2016. This affects not just animals but the entire continent and maybe even the world. “The Congo Forest Basin provides critical water catchment services to Africa,” says Kaddu Sebunya, President of the AWF. “A third of the 100 largest cities of the world depend on protected forest areas for their water supply. For local communities who practice subsistence agriculture, the forests ensure their food security and support their livelihood needs. As we witness other continents suffering air quality issues from rapid development, Africans can rely on the Congo Basin forests, which acts as the world’s ‘second lung’ after the Amazon.”
On a related note, Bill Laurance, distinguished research professor at James Cook University and director of ALERT Conservation, said that a story many people probably missed was the massive wave of investment by development banks into infrastructure—dams, mines, roads and related projects—something that threatens to carve up key habitats in Asia, Africa and South America.
Rangers (and More Trees)
Experts from WWF pointed out many underreported stories for the year. At the top of their list was the murder of dozens of wildlife rangers around the world. They were not alone. According to the International Ranger Foundation, more than 1,000 of these wildlife protectors have died in the past decade. WWF itself has issued several reports on rangers, including one about rangers’ lack of insurance, as well as ranger surveys about work conditions and quality of life from both Africa and Asia.
Some of those rangers died not to protect wildlife, but trees. Specifically, rosewood: a high-value hardwood desired in China for use in carving luxury items. Another underreported story picked by WWF was the protection of 300 species of rosewood under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. High-profile wildlife decisions at the same meeting did get a lot of press, but most people did not hear about the rosewood issue. (The story did get a mention in “Extinction Countdown,” but not in many other places.)
The illegal trade in wildlife and their body parts (not to mention rare plants) continues to devastate wild populations of all-too-many species. This isn’t just a problem related to China. The U.S. is also a major market for these illegal goods, something that experts from Defenders of Wildlife picked as one of their most under-reported stories for 2016. In particular, they wrote, the traffic between the U.S. and Latin America continues at staggering levels. Of the 300 ports of entry into the U.S., only about 20 are designated for the import/export of wildlife and staffed full-time by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service inspectors. “This issue needs serious attention, and will only get worse the longer it goes unaddressed,” says Haley McKey, Communications Specialist with Defenders.
There was progress on this front, though. This past September, President Obama signed the END Wildlife Trafficking Act in law. A WWF write-up about this important legislation described it thusly: “This bipartisan legislation strengthens penalties against wildlife crime offenders under US law and bolsters US government support for foreign governments doing the most to tackle the poaching crisis. It also increases support for wildlife trafficking law enforcement and wildlife rangers, including the transfer of military equipment for ranger use.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced $1.2 million in grants intended to help halt wildlife poaching and trafficking, which the agency picked as one of their choices for under-reported stories of the year.
We talk a lot about megafauna and insects, but endangered plants tend to get left behind, not just in the media but even in the sciences. A paper published last year in Conservation Biology discussed this “plant blindness” and its implications for plant conservation.
There are plant-related success stories, though. One of FWS’s choices for under-reported stories of 2016 was one ecologist’s efforts to protect 3,500 species of plants (plus 350 animal species) in the American prairie ecosystem nicknamed the “sagebrush sea.”
Sadly, I could easily add several dozen other neglected stories from 2016 to this list. My own database of stories that I didn’t get a chance to cover in “Extinction Countdown” this past year runs more than 120 single-spaced pages. The news never stops, but luckily, neither does the collective effort to protect threatened species around the world. Keep reading in 2017 as I dig into the news, both good and bad.
Previously in Extinction Countdown: