The process of bringing a species back from the brink of extinction is long and difficult; it often faces seemingly insurmountable odds, and progress is measured in inches. That's why any success, no matter how small, is cause for celebration. Here are 12 endangered animals that made positive steps toward recovery in 2012.
This is one of those cases in which a species is still staring extinction in the face, but its population has recovered well enough to inspire some hope. In 2012, the number of kakapo parrots remaining in the world increased to 126. While that number is terribly small, it represents the success of a conservation effort that has boosted the New Zealand birds' numbers from only 50 in 1990.
Kakapos were once numerous, and have long life spans — up to 90 years — but several factors put their population at risk. One, they are notoriously slow breeders. Two, they panic and freeze when faced with danger, making them easy prey. And three, their habitat has been destroyed by human expansion. But conservation efforts are ongoing and remain positive. A kakapo even became a viral hit a few years ago when footage from Stephen Fry’s “Last Chance to See” profiled them, and one of the birds became rather enamored with zoologist Mark Carwardine.
This fall, a positive note appeared to be struck for the gray wolf when the species was removed from the endangered list in the state of Wyoming, but the decision was not met without controversy. Not all steps forward are as positive as they may appear on the surface. Technically, the only thing that makes a species endangered is that it is on an endangered-species list maintained by some organization, governmental or otherwise. Sometimes, a species will be officially removed from an endangered list under protest from environmental and wildlife conservation groups. While gray wolves have made great progress is their recovery, there are many who say it isn’t appropriate for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove their endangered protection. Making matters worse, the wolves weren’t only removed from the list, but at the same time were declared predators, allowing Wyoming hunters to freely hunt them. This move was followed quickly by tragedy, when a wolf known as 832F, considered by many to be the most famous and beloved wolf in the world, was shot and killed by a hunter earlier this month.
This year, the lion-tailed macaque was removed from the list of the world’s 25 most endangered primates, maintained by a group of organizations: the Primate Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature/Species Survival Commission, the International Primatological Society, Conservation International, and the Bristol Conservation and Science Foundation. But as is true for many of the animals on his list, the health of the lion-tailed macaque population is relative. While governmental efforts to preserve the species have been enough to delist the monkeys, that doesn’t mean they’re safe. According to the IUCN, there remain only about 3,500 lion-tailed macaques in the world. And of course, their removal from the list doesn’t shrink it; there are still 25 primates who are simply more endangered.
Northern spotted owl
For almost 30 years, the northern spotted owl has been caught in the middle of an American political controversy that has pitted the environmental lobby against the logging industry. In order to save the threatened spotted owls, their habitat must be protected, and when the American government creates laws to protect the forests, it costs many timber jobs. So, meeting the needs of both wildlife and the logging industry has been an ongoing balancing act for the U.S. government for decades. Sadly, despite scaling back logging 90 percent in 1990 to protect the owls, their numbers have continued to decline. But in 2012, the Obama administration increased the owls’ critical habitat in the face of ongoing protests from the logging industry. 9.6 million acres of land throughout Washington, Oregon and California will come under protection. That’s nearly double the 5.3 million acres proposed in 2008.
Lynxes haven’t dwelt in Hungary for 100 years. But just last week, the World Wildlife Fund reported that the cats have returned to northern Hungary, thanks to a hunting ban. According to the Agence France-Presse, the WWF report indicated that a young lynx was photographed in Aggtelek National Park. Said the WWF in their report, “The appearance of the lynx in the Hungarian slopes of the Carpathians is linked to a ban on hunting lynxes in Slovakia, which appears to have made the predators more adventurous and encouraged them to expand their hunting areas into Hungary.” Want to help the lynx population? You can “adopt” a lynx through the WWF.
Greater bamboo lemur
The greater bamboo lemur joined the lion-tailed macaque this year in jumping off that list of the 25 most endangered primates. As recently as 25 years ago, the greater bamboo lemur was believed to be extinct. Since then, several small populations of the lemurs have been discovered, especially in the past few years. The lemurs remain critically endangered. The known population numbers around 300, which may be very few, but it’s still a lot better than “extinct.” And it hasn’t been only lucky stumbling upon previously unknown lemur colonies that have helped their numbers. Conservation efforts in Madagascar, where the lemurs live, have significantly curbed deforestation in the past couple of decades, helping to preserve the greater bamboo lemurs’ habitat.
A few decades ago, the number of saltwater crocodiles in Australia had dwindled to almost zero. That’s why the government put the species under federal protection in 1974. The effort paid off in a big way. In 2012, there are about 100,000 of the crocs swimming in Australian waters. In fact, many feel the recovery may have been a little bit too successful. The crocs can be aggressive and are extremely dangerous. After all, the saltwater crocodile has the most powerful bite of any animal on the face of the planet. And now that the croc population is thriving, attacks on humans are ramping up. After several deadly attacks over the past few years, calls have been increasing to actually cull the “salty” population back before it grows out of control.
Since the early '90s, India’s vulture population has plummeted, reducing the birds’ numbers more than 99 percent by 2008. The reason can be found in their diet, or rather, in the fact that their diet has been poisoned. Although vultures, being among nature's greatest scavengers, can eat and digest almost anything they manage to get their beaks on, they can’t digest diclofenac, a painkiller given to cows. When vultures eat cows who had been given the drug recently, it destroys the vultures’ kidneys, killing them. But after all those years of tanking numbers, the vultures of India saw a glimmer of hope in 2012. For the first time in more than 20 years, the vulture population increased from 2011 to 2012. The jump was tiny, but it was the first increase instead of a decrease since around 1990. Here’s hoping it’s just the beginning.
Isthmohyla rivularis frog
Isthmohyla rivularis, which doesn’t have a non-Latin name, is the rarest species of tree frog in the world. The frogs are natives to rainforests in Panama and Costa Rica, but due to habitat loss, they were thought to have gone extinct in the 1980s. They kept that status for 20 years, and then in 2007, one of the tiny frogs was found by University of Manchester researcher Andrew Gray. In 2008, a female was found in Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve in Costa Rica. Discovering specimens of both sexes of the species gave hope of fostering a recovery effort. And this year, there was more good news for isthmohyla rivularis. More of the frogs were discovered, although this time in an environment in which they were not previously recorded to exist, at a higher altitude than normal near Costa Rica’s Barva volcano. Scientists believe global warming may have contributed to the frogs relocation.
This year, a 25-year-old Wisconsin program designed to revive and conserve the state’s population of trumpeter swans was officially ended. It wasn’t because of budget cuts or political interference, but simply and happily because the program had been successful, and achieved its goals. In 1987, when the recovery plan began, the trumpeter swans had nearly been wiped out completely. But a quarter century of capturing, tagging and protecting the swans has recovered the population to a degree that could be considered relatively robust, from no swans in 1987 to about 1,500 in 2012. The birds were removed from Wisconsin’s endangered and threatened species list three years ago. This year, biologists found 214 nesting pairs of swans. Those pair produced 373 offspring. That’s what a successful conservation effort looks like.
Like the kakapo parrot, the black robin is a bird native to New Zealand, whose population nearly went extinct before recovering due to a herculean conservation effort. And when we say this species nearly went extinct, we mean it. In 1980, the black-robin population had dwindled to five. That’s right: five. And only one of the five was a breeding female, named Old Blue. At the time, the black robin was the world’s most endangered species. But conservationist Don Merton found the key to saving them when he noticed that, after Old Blue’s nest was destroyed, she immediately set about laying new eggs. Merton was able to increase Old Blue’s breeding by removing her eggs and cross-fostering them with another species of robins. Sadly, Merton died last year, but his conservation efforts live on, and today, there are 250 black robins, all of them descended from Old Blue.
Next: 15 Fascinating Extinct Animals
Brazilian cloning of jaguar, bison and more
With new science and technology come potential new opportunities to save endangered species. With cloning technologies always advancing, a program is being developed in Brazil to use it in order to save a number of endangered animals. The Brasilia Zoological Garden will partner with Brazil’s agricultural research agency to save the bison, the black lion tamarin, the Brazilian aardvark, the bush dog, the collared anteater, the gray brocket deer, the jaguar, and the maned wolf. The idea isn’t without controversy. Even if successful, cloning is not a true solution for preserving endangered species. Because clones are genetic copies, they’re not suitable for breeding. Genetic diversity is critical for maintaining an animal population over the long term. Cloning is more of a band-aid solution meant to preserve these animals in captivity and keep them from being wiped out.