It’s easy to look at the state of wildlife conservation today and feel a sense of hopelessness. As of right now, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that around 38,000 of the world’s animal species are under threat of extinction, with around 16,000 of those species being classified as endangered. Many of these species, including the Amur leopard and the Asian elephant, have remained endangered for decades. With this in mind, one could fall into the trap of thinking that once a certain species falls onto the endangered list, it can never get out. It can seem like no matter how forcefully activists push for wildlife protection and how robust those protection efforts become, thousands of the world’s animal species are destined to remain endangered forever.
But to believe that, one would have to ignore the incredible accomplishments that conservationists have made over the years. There have been numerous instances in which robust conservation efforts have saved certain species from the brink of extinction. Although this does not mean that these species no longer face serious challenges, it demonstrates that ensuring a better future for them is far from a pipe dream. It is worth looking back at some of these success stories and seeing if any lessons can be learned from them.
The history of the giant panda
One recent animal species that has escaped the endangered list is the giant panda, which may come as a surprise to those who have not kept up with recent developments. After all, for a long time, the panda was likely the first animal that came to many people’s minds whenever they thought of an endangered species, which can be attributed at least partially to the animal’s recognizability and iconic status. But one could argue that it is precisely this recognizability that led both activists and the Chinese government to change the panda’s status from “endangered” to “vulnerable” in 2016, at least according to the IUCN’s estimates.
The IUCN first declared pandas to be endangered in 1990, although the group classified them as “rare” even back in 1986. Agricultural expansion, poaching, and a whole host of other factors have led to a substantial shrinking of the pandas’ habitat, which in turn caused the wild panda population to drop to around 1,100 during the 1980s.
Interestingly, the legwork for wild panda conservation began well before the animal became so staggeringly scarce. Back in the 1960s, the first panda protection reserve in China was established as part of the Chinese government’s initiative to place 19 “precious and rare” species in specialized nature protection areas. To Chinese officials, the panda wasn’t just an animal; it was a source of national pride, a symbol of the country’s distinct natural beauty. Irrespective of the popularity of the panda in Western nations and among scientists and conservationists, the Chinese government already had a vested interest in ensuring that the panda remained in the wild.
And so far, the various efforts made to protect wild pandas have paid off. According to Chinese officials, the wild panda population has risen to around 1,800, and while this number is still quite low, it’s a significant improvement compared to how it was a few decades ago. Because of this, the Chinese government officially classified the giant panda as “vulnerable” rather than “endangered” back in the summer of 2021, a sign that the former IUCN classification could no longer be dismissed as mere hype. Pandas may not yet be out of the woods, figuratively speaking, but their future is looking brighter than ever.
The history of the southern white rhino
Of course, being such a popular animal that holds so much importance to so many, the panda remains a special case. Thankfully, although reaching such a prestigious status can certainly help, doing so is not required for a species to escape endangerment. The southern white rhino, which the World Wildlife Fund currently classifies as “near threatened,” serves as a perfect example of this.
Before the dawn of the 20th century, the southern white rhino was an unfortunately common target for hunters, to the point where it was considered extinct by the end of the 19th century. Miraculously, that assumption turned out to be incorrect, as the year 1895 saw the discovery of nearly 100 of these rhinos living in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa.
This kickstarted a whole host of conservation efforts spanning over a century, resulting in the population of this subspecies reaching over 20,000, a staggering jump from where it was before. As of right now, these rhinos mostly reside in private game reserves and protected areas found in South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Namibia. Although the southern white rhino is still threatened by factors such as illegal poaching, the fact that it has become the most populous rhino subspecies even after having nearly gone extinct is still a remarkable achievement worth celebrating.
The history of the Lake Erie watersnake
These kinds of success stories do not necessarily need to span across such a long time frame, however, even for more obscure animal species. The story of the Lake Erie watersnake, a subspecies of the northern water snake, demonstrates this, as it only took a little more than a decade to remove this animal from the endangered list.
As the name implies, the Lake Erie watersnake resides exclusively in the Lake Erie islands located near the border between the U.S. and Canada. Although these snakes are not venomous and only bite when provoked, the negative stigma surrounding snakes in general led to the islands’ residents viewing them as pests. This attitude tragically resulted in them murdering thousands of these unique snakes, and this coupled with the development-induced destruction of their natural habitat brought them close to extinction by the end of the 1990s.
Soon after the Lake Erie watersnake was put on the federal endangered list in 1999, however, conservationists and U.S. government entities quickly sprang into action. A recovery plan that implemented habitat protections and population goals was put into place, and a number of education and outreach programs managed to convince the public of the value these snakes have within the lake’s ecosystem. Thanks to these efforts, the Lake Erie watersnake population rose to around 12,000 in 2011, more than enough for it to be swiftly taken off of the federal endangered list by then.
If there is a single takeaway you can get from these stories, it’s this: until the last of any given species passes, it is never too late to bring a species back from the brink of extinction. Doing so may seem impossibly daunting at first, but efforts to save the southern white rhino were successfully kickstarted over 100 years ago, so we can absolutely replicate that kind of success in the current day. Saving a species may take only a decade, or it may not happen in our lifetimes. But either way, there is no need for us to grow defeatist. We have way more control over the fates of the world’s species than we might think.
Do you think these success stories bode well for the futures of other endangered species, or do you believe there are more obstacles to conservation now than there were in the past? Let us know in the comments below!