Look back on the last year of Extinction Countdown and you won't find that many endangered species success stories. Oh, sure, they're there, but you have to look for them. For every Kihansi spray toad that is saved from extinction you have a dozen species like the Mangarahara cichlid, which is down to its last three lonely males, with no female fish to be found. Extinction is all around us and it isn't going anywhere. I can easily predict that I will have plenty more species obituaries to write in the coming months and years.
But before we get too maudlin let's take a step back and ask ourselves, what do we mean by success when it comes to endangered species? True success would obviously be the complete recovery of a species so it is no longer endangered, but that almost never happens. When I spoke recently with Gary Frazer, assistant director for endangered species at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he defined success as a species not going extinct. If that's the case, then we have a lot of successes to celebrate. Every day, habitats are preserved, threats are mitigated, and animals are bred in captivity or released back into the wild. Challenges are overcome. Populations grow. Diseases are cured. Awareness is raised. Legislation is passed and protections are put in place. Species are saved, even if they are not fully recovered.
Two truths will undoubtedly dominate endangered species conservation over the course of the coming century. First, we will lose species—possibly many species—to extinction. Second, we will save quite a few species from disappearing, but few will ever be completely free of the threats that put them at risk in the first place. Many of these species will find themselves crowded into smaller and smaller habitats, and that alone could create new threats such as inbreeding or diseases that could wipe out entire populations. But they'll survive. After what humans have done to them over the past few decades and centuries, that survival alone might be enough to give us hope.
So what comes next? I'll be discussing that today with a panel of experts at the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists in Chattanooga. The event won't be livestreamed, but keep an eye on Twitter for the #SEJ2013 hashtag, where you might see some of this discussed. Meanwhile, I hope you'll add a comment below about what successes you think or hope we will see in the coming years. There are a lot of people doing good work to keep species from going extinct and our talking about those efforts is, in its own way, a success of its own.
Photo: Jason Mrachina via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license