10 Animals Brought Back from the Brink of Extinction

Annual extinction rates continue to rise but, as these animals brought back from the brink of extinction show, there may yet be some hope.

In recent posts, I’ve been exploring humanity’s role in the ongoing Holocene Extinction. Dozens of species disappear forever off the face of the Earth every day, with some sources suggesting that, at current rates, we could lose as much as 50% of our planet’s biodiversity by the middle of the century. However, while extinction rates currently lie somewhere between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural background rate, there is still some hope. Perhaps it’s time to take a diversion from the horrors of the worst mass extinction in 66 million years and familiarise ourselves with some of the more successful conservation efforts:

#1. Amur Leopard

This beautiful creature is native to Primorsky Krai, a region in the far east of Russia whose capital is Vladivostok. It is unique because it’s the only leopard that has successfully adapted to living in a region that gets a lot of snow. Threatened for decades by ceaseless development projects, deforestation and poaching, the amur leopard population was decimated by the mid-2000s, with numbers falling to as little a couple of dozen in the wild. However, though still critically endangered, their numbers have increased almost four-fold thanks to a successful rewilding project operated by the Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance.

#2. Iberian Lynx

The Iberian lynx was once widespread throughout Spain and Portugal, but numbers had plummeted to around 100 by 2005. One of the main reasons was the deliberate introduction of the myxomatosis virus, which was intended to keep rabbit populations under control. Unfortunately, being rather fussy eaters, Iberian lynxes don’t eat much else, and myxomatosis, among habitat loss, caused an unprecedented decline in their numbers. However, thanks to the tireless efforts of organizations like Portugal’s National Breeding Center for Iberian Lynxes, their numbers are now growing steadily, surpassing 400 last year.

#3. Przewalski’s Horse

Przewalski's HorseZazaa Mongolia

Przewalski’s horse has the unique characteristic of being the only truly wild horse still in existence. By contrast, other so-called wild horses, such as the mustang, are descended from the domesticated horse. Przewalski’s horse, which was originally endemic to the Mongolian steppe, has never been domesticated. By the middle of the nineteenth century, they had completely vanished in the wild, existing only in in zoos. However, they have now been successfully introduced into the wild both in Europe, Russia, China and their native Mongolia. One of the areas they’ve been particularly successful is the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in Ukraine.

#4. Southern White Rhinoceros

Many among Africa’s iconic megafauna are endangered, despite international efforts to stem the tide of relentless poaching and habitat destruction. The southern white rhinoceros was almost wiped out entirely by the early twentieth century, with no more than 20 of the animals surviving in the wild. When Dutch and English settlers colonized the area, they almost hunted the white rhino to extinction, often for the sake of sport alone. It wasn’t until 1968 that trophy hunting was legalized and regulated. Ironically, however, the funds raised by legal trophy hunting have helped save the species from extinction. There are now over 20,000 white rhinos in the wild!

#5. Arabian Oryx

The Arabian oryx is an antelope native to arid climes of the Arabian Peninsula. It once roamed throughout the Middle East but, by the twentieth century, it had been pushed back to an isolated area of Saudi Arabia. The antelope has long had a troublesome relationship with humans, with hunting being the primary cause of its sharp decline in numbers. Starting in the 1930s, enormous hunts organized by oil magnates and Arab royalty obliterated remaining populations. They were declared extinct in the wild in 1972. However, thanks to the efforts of the Phoenix Zoo, the oryx has made a successful comeback both in Saudi Arabia and Israel.

#6. Galápagos Tortoise

Weighing up to 900 pounds (400 kg), the Galápagos tortoise is the largest extant tortoise. While they once numbered in the hundreds of thousands, their populations quickly declined due to habitat destruction and excessive exploitation by humans. The death of Lonesome George in 2012, the last individual of his subspecies, has become a powerful symbol in the fight for conservation of the archipelago’s unique wildlife. Fortunately, conservation efforts have been immensely successful. Much of this success has been down to a rather lecherous creature named Diego, who has managed to father 800 offspring and is still going strong after living over 100 years.

#7. Kakapo

Meaning ‘night parrot’ in Māori, the kakapo is endemic to New Zealand. Until the Polynesians came along around 700 years ago, the flightless nocturnal bird was one of the most common in the region. Excessive hunting for skins and feathers led to the bird’s extinction in many areas, and the arrival of Europeans in the late eighteenth century only made things exponentially worse. Deforestation and the introduction of foreign species decimated the population, bringing it down to the dozens. Today, however, thanks to the Kakapo Recovery Program, they are making a gradual comeback, although they remain critically endangered.

#8. European Bison

European BisonGrottesdeHan

The European bison is a hybrid between aurochs, of which domestic cattle are descended, and steppe bison. It is the heaviest wild terrestrial mammal in Europe, weighing up to 2,000 pounds (900 kg). Its ancestors, as well as its two closest relatives, the Carpathian and Caucasian bison, are all now extinct. The European bison, also known as a wisent, itself was declared extinct in the wild around 100 years ago. Hunting, particularly for its hide, was the main cause. Despite completely disappearing from its natural habitat, rewilding projects of the last 60 years have been extremely successful, with around 3,000 now living in the wild.

#9. Siberian Tiger

Sharing the same habitat as the Amur leopard, the Siberian tiger is the better known of the region’s native big cats. Since they require expansive forested areas to survive, overlogging in the region was the main reason for their decline. Although habitat encroachment continues, as does the ancient practice of harvesting various tiger organs for traditional medicine, the species has made a successful comeback in recent years. Populations have more than doubled in the last decade, with the most recent census revealing a population of 562 in Russia. Plans to re-introduce them to various other regions, such as Siberia’s Pleistocene Park, are also in the works.

#10. Giant Panda

China’s iconic giant panda is unusual among the carnivoran order in that it isn’t even a carnivore. The fussy eater barely touches anything else other than bamboo, and they’re notoriously slow to breed. Although poaching since ancient times caused their numbers to decline sharply, pandas don’t exactly make matters easy for conservationists. Nonetheless, the last couple of years have been good news for pandas, with populations increasing by 17% over the previous decade. This is partly due to China’s enormously successful reforestation initiative, which has seen forest cover in the country increase by a third since the 1970s.

If there’s one thing that this list illustrates, it’s that humanity can stem the tide of the damage it has unleashed. Nonetheless, if we don’t keep up our conservation efforts, biodiversity loss will forever change our planet, ultimately leaving it in ruins for future generations. What do you think should be done to make our world a greener and more sustainable place? Let me know in the comments below!

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