Earlier this year the Bramble Cay melomys—a tiny island rodent species that few people had ever seen or heard of—became the first mammal extinction caused by climate change and sea-level rise.
Believe it or not, that portent of things to come wasn’t even the worst wildlife conservation story of the year. Read on for more sad news items from 2016, as chosen from the “Extinction Countdown” archives and by experts and conservation groups around the globe. (Don’t get too depressed reading this—a list of the best stories of 2016 is coming tomorrow.)
Other Extinctions (with More on the Way)
In addition to the melomys, the Rabbs’ tree frog also went extinct, something we’ve actually been expecting for a while. The species was down to its last individual, but the death of the final frog, nicknamed “Toughie,” was still a painful reminder and very public reminder of what we’re losing.
Other disappearances were less visible. The IUCN declared 13 newly discovered bird species to be extinct. Two beetle species went extinct after waiting decades for protection. The population of Addax antelopes fell to just three wild animals. And conservationists predicted the Ploughshare tortoise of Madagascar has maybe two years left in the wild due to rampant poaching for the illegal pet trade.
The illegal pet trade, by the way, is just one of the factors behind the massive decline of another Madagascar species, the ring-tailed lemur, which new research—published just this week—reveals has fallen to a population of fewer than 2,500 animals. Other threats include deforestation, habitat loss and the bushmeat trade. There’s hope for this and other species on the island nation, but that hope is admittedly slim. “Generalist species like the ring-tailed lemur can often persist and do okay, even in the face of rapid ecological change or anthropogenic threat, but as we've seen in Madagascar, the threats are just too great, even for these hearty lemurs,” says Marni LaFleur, adjunct professor at University of California San Diego and co-director of Lemur Love.
We also continued to lose the vaquita porpoise, which has seen its population decline to 60 or fewer animals as the animals are caught up in nets targeting a nearby fish called the totoaba. “That’s a 30 percent decline in just 4 years,” says Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “At this rate, we're facing functional extinction by 2022.”
That’s already happened with another species, the Irrawaddy dolphin, which became functionally extinct in Laos in 2016. Experts from WWF picked it as one of the worst news stories of the year.
Elephants and Rhinos
Some of the largest species on the planet also had terrible years—most notably, elephants. According to data from the Great Elephant Census, Africa has lost a third of its elephants in just the past seven years due to rampant poaching for their ivory tusks. Forest elephants, one of the two African elephant species, have been hit the worst, as research published this year revealed it will take the slow-breeding pachyderms at least a century to recover from recent poaching losses. “That’s serious,” says Susan Lieberman, vice president of international policy for the Wildlife Conservation Society. “It’s worse that we would have predicted.”
Rhino poaching also continued nonstop. Numbers released at the beginning of 2016 revealed that 2015 had the highest levels of rhino poaching ever. Things didn’t appear to slow down in the months that followed. I dread what 2016’s numbers, due late next month, will reveal.
Both orangutan species are now considered critically endangered, mostly due to habitat loss for production of palm oil and other agricultural products. Meanwhile, efforts to protect the orangutans that remain suffered some setbacks this year. “The worst orangutan conservation story of 2016 is the recent loss of the court case to protect the Leuser Ecosystem in Northern Sumatra,” says Richard Zimmerman, director of Orangutan Outreach. “This is the only intact forest on earth that is home to orangutans, tigers, elephants and rhinos. The Acehnese government is planning to destroy the entire forest and convert the land into oil palm plantations. In such a scenario the biodiversity will be wiped out, leading to the rapid extinction of all the unique animal species inhabiting the ecosystem. A coalition of NGOs and conservation organizations has been fighting to enforce national Indonesian laws, but the court recently rejected their claims. They will be appealing the decision and continuing the fight in 2017.”
Let’s talk tigers. Populations of the world’s most well-known big cat are reportedly up, but in part that’s just be because we’ve gotten better at counting them. Meanwhile the illegal trade in tigers and their body parts continues to surge. We saw this most clearly during the raids of the infamous Tiger Temple in Thailand this past June.
Some tiger populations definitely are increasing and being well protected, but in general the news remains bleak, especially considering what could happen in the future. Zhou Fei, Head of TRAFFIC’s China Office in Beijing points out that “China revised its ‘Wild animal protection law,’ [meaning] there is a call for removal of the 1993 trade ban and use of tiger bone for traditional Chinese medicine.” That could accelerate the loss of wild tigers.
As bad as things are for tigers, the news about leopards may be even worse. These often-ignored big cats are also in crisis, most notably the Indochinese subspecies, which has lost more than 94 percent of its range (compared to 75 percent for all leopards). The cats are expected to become extinct in Cambodia in as little as two years, mostly due to the trapping crisis that is converting every living thing in Southeast Asia into food for the wild meat market.
Wolves & Bears
A lot of people are howling about wolves lately, and with good reason. Experts at Defenders of Wildlife called this year’s plan to pull most red wolves out of the wild “disastrous.” Fewer than 45 of these rare animals remain the wild right now. Mexican gray wolves aren’t much better off, with 97 animals in the U.S. and fewer than 25 in Mexico. The state of New Mexico has sued to block further reintroductions of captive-bred wolves, something that Defenders is fighting. Expect big developments on this story starting in January.
Meanwhile, last member of Yellowstone National Park’s well-known Druid wolf pack was shot and killed—legally—by a hunter in Montana. The pack was a popular sight for tourists and was seen by at least 100,000 Yellowstone visitors over the past two decades. That’s now gone.
Sticking with Yellowstone, experts from the NRDC identified the ongoing efforts to remove the grizzly bear population there from the protection of the Endangered Species Act one of the worst conservation stories of the year.
It’s not all about animals. Ecosystems matter, too. Bill Laurance, distinguished research professor at James Cook University and director of ALERT Conservation, said one of the worst bits of news for the year was a study that found the world’s forests, especially remote, “core” forest areas that are important for biodiversity, are disappearing faster than ever.
Politics & the Election
On a broader level, here in the U.S. the Endangered Species Act faced dozens of legislative attacks to reduce its strength and effectiveness. Other laws also took aim at wildlife. A rider attached to the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) targets protections for salmon and the Delta smelt. Defenders of Wildlife president and CEO Jamie Rapport Clark said politicians “cynically used the Flint community's need for clean water to gut environmental protections for fish and wildlife. However, this was a false choice created by opportunistic politicians who have signaled that they will use any means at their disposal to roll back important environmental protections. If this is the new way of business for the next Congress, we will fight them every step of the way, because voters did not vote to roll back protections for water, air and wildlife.”
Is that just the shape of things to come? “The number one story of the year has to be that electors in the USA voted in a president who is openly hostile to science, didn’t answer any of the questions posed to him by Science Debate, and denies human caused global warming,” says Stuart Pimm, Doris Duke Professor of Conservation at Duke University and president of Saving Species. “So, too, do two key members of his administration—the proposed heads of EPA and Interior.” That could spell trouble for all of the world’s wildlife—something we’ll explore in another article looking ahead at 2017. Look for that in the coming weeks.
Obviously there were other bad news stories endangered species 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.