Legislation/Policy Article from All-Creatures.org

Conservation Works—and Science Just Proved It

From John R. Platt, The Revelator
May 2024

Conservation works—and science just proved it... But at the same time, it doesn’t take much to do tremendous damage to endangered species. Humans pushed most of these species toward extinction, but we can also lift them back, given enough time, effort and funding.

B. Bartel/USFS

Science just proved it: Conservation efforts around the world are working.

According to a study published April 26 in the journal Science, human efforts to help endangered and at-risk species have proven overwhelmingly successful at improving their status.

The researchers — 33 authors from universities and conservation groups — examined 186 studies that measured the effectiveness of conservation efforts over time. The meta-study put the results clearly:

“In two-thirds of cases, conservation either improved the state of biodiversity or at least slowed declines. Specifically, we find that interventions targeted at species and ecosystems, such as invasive species control, habitat loss reduction and restoration, protected areas, and sustainable management, are highly effective and have large effect sizes.”

Interestingly, the study found that more recent conservation projects were the most likely to have gone well. We’ve learned a lot over the past few decades, which means we’re doing better all the time.

Toward that point, the paper found that even conservation efforts that don’t work can provide critical information to help future programs, as two of the study authors wrote for The Conversation: “For example, in India, removing an invasive algae simply caused it to spread elsewhere. Conservationists can now try a different strategy that may be more successful.”

And here’s the even bigger takeaway: The benefits aren’t just for the species that are direct targets of conservation efforts. “One of the most interesting findings was that even when a conservation intervention didn’t work for the species that is was intended, other species unintentionally benefited,” lead author Penny Langhammer, executive vice president of the conservation group Re:wild, told BBC News. That often happens when conservationists mitigate a threat in order to help one species but help other nearby plants or animals in the process.

Of course, we could be doing even better: Even though we know conservation works, there’s just nowhere nearly enough funding to help every species in need. As the authors wrote in The Conversation:

“…a comprehensive global conservation program would require an investment of between $178 and $524 billion. By comparison, in 2022 alone, subsidies for the production and use of fossil fuels — which are ultimately destructive to nature as fossil fuel burning is the leading cause of climate change — totaled $7 trillion globally. That is 13 times the upper estimate of what is needed annually to fund the protection and restoration of biodiversity. Today, just $121 billion is invested annually in conservation worldwide.”

The paper itself lists dozens of great conservation examples, but you can find even more in recent news:

  • Critically endangered red wolves (Canis rufus) have enjoyed a much-needed baby boom, with eight new cubs born to a pack in North Carolina last month. Red wolves only have one breeding male left in the wild, so these cubs represent the future of the species. (The proud papa came from a conservation breeding center in Washington state after the previous male was killed by a car — further proof that these wolves wouldn’t continue to exist without dedicated humans looking out for their future.)
  • Devil’s Hole pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis) are also having a helluva good time and have reached their highest spring population level in 25 years. At just 191 tiny fish, they’re not exactly populous, but this is a huge boost from 2013, when the species’ spring population plummeted to a low of just 35. This sets them up for a good breeding season ahead, when their population (which fluctuates according to the time of year) could hit 500 or more.
  • Meanwhile giant ground pangolins (Smutsia gigantea) have returned to Kenya for the first time in more than half a century. Conservationists put the current population at just 30-80 animals, but it’s a start, and it’s all due to the nonprofit Project Pangolin’s work to remove electric fences and other threats that prevented the return of these heavily poached animals.
  • Similarly, spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) have taken up residence in Gabon for the first time since 1949. A few individuals had briefly wandered into the country over the past few decades, but none of these important predators had stuck around. Now a new study reveals that some of them have finally decided to call their former country home once again — a call for scientists to understand how they did it so others can follow.
  • Also in Gabon, a new study shows that forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council in that country and the Republic of Congo now enjoy greater abundances of large mammals such as elephants and gorillas, as well as other critically endangered species.
  • Asian elephants living in recently protected habitats in Cambodia appear to have increased in number and now travel in groups of up to 20 or 30, compared to groups of 3-5 just a few years ago.
  • In the UK 150 harvest mice (Micromys minutus) have been reintroduced into a nature reserve near London, the first time they’ve lived in the area since 1979. Conservationists have protected meadows and created wildlife corridors to make the wooded reserve more hospitable to the rewilded mice.

That just scratches the surface, but it proves a point: Humans pushed most of these species toward extinction, but we can also lift them back, given enough time, effort and funding.


Of course, not everything goes well for imperiled wildlife.

As Mongabay reports, a single gang of poachers may have killed at least 10% of the entire Javan rhino species (Rhinoceros sondaicus) since 2019 [A single gang of poachers may have killed 10% of Javan rhinos since 2019]. A 2021 camera-trap survey put the Javan rhino population at 34 confirmed individuals, although a government report earlier that year estimated the number at 76. Either count was bad enough, and now this gang is suspected to have killed at least seven of the rhinos, according to government officials, pushing the species ever closer to extinction.

This brutal news hit the environmental media like a lead balloon. Other than Mongabay, no media outlets covered the story in English in the week that followed, according to freelance journalist Jeremy Hance broke the news and later wrote on social media, “How can we do anything about the mass extinction crisis if the news refuses to cover it?” 

This story — and the journalistic apathy around it — cuts deep. I’ve long been vocal in my criticism that environmental journalism doesn’t do enough to cover wildlife issues and the extinction crisis. Climate change — as critical as it is — has sucked much of the air from the room and left little space for covering other topics.

Part of the challenge is that bad news about endangered species and wildlife is often so heart-wrenching. Stories like poachers killing Javan rhinos embody the cruelest aspects of human character and social conditions. Faced with painful facts and few actionable solutions, many readers tune it out and turn the page.

But we can’t turn a blind eye to the multiple crises around the world. The media needs to cover them, and people who care need to read and share them along with the good-news stories — to help inspire further action and fight the overwhelming ennui that can settle on us in the face of destruction.

If the bad news makes you angry, use that anger. And look to the success stories to keep you going and build on what’s already been done.

Posted on All-Creatures.org: May 17, 2024
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