Look, when it comes to protecting the environment and rebuilding what we’ve trashed, there’s a long way to go. Longer than ever, in fact. But let’s not throw in the towel quite yet. Conservation works! And these magnificent species are proof. Here are some of the most tear-jerking, awe-inspiring success stories that help keep our planet vibrant.
This one was a really close call. Chemical pesticides cut the California condor population down to as few as 10 individuals in the 1980s. Just ten! But since DDT was banned, the Endangered Species Act put in strict regulations to protect wildlife, and breeding programs began, there are now 518 California condors in the wild or captivity. They’re still among the rarest birds in the world, but look at it this way — in 30 years, the population increased by 5,180%. If these numbers keep climbing, there’s a real chance condors could be promoted from “critically endangered” to just regular old “endangered” by 2024. That’s a huge step forward!
Whaling, which was all the rage between the 17- and early 1900s, slashed the whale population as a whole. All large whale species were severely impacted, especially great blue whales, whose numbers were cut by more than 99%. They’re still on the road to recovery, but humpbacks’ success story gives us hope. By the 1970’s, only a couple hundred living humpback whales could be identified. But thanks to the protections from the International Whaling Commission, the Endangered Species Act, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, there are now around a hundred thousand whales singing today.
Wait, what? You mean our national icon? Our country’s mascot? That bald eagle? Oh yes! The United States’s own avatar was once nearly wiped out after continuous use of the infamous pesticide DDT and severe habitat reduction. In the 1960s, scientists could only identify 480 nesting bald eagles in the contiguous US. Nope, there’s not a missing digit there. But thanks to the Endangered Species Act and the 1972 ban on the pesticide, there are now more than 143,000 bald eagles in the USA. In 2007, they were even declared “recovered” and no longer endangered. In fact, here in the midwest, it’s not too tough to spot a bald eagle soaring overhead, and we owe it all to dedicated conservation efforts.
Trumpeter swans — North America’s largest native water bird — almost went extinct from over-hunting. Their beautiful pure white feathers were used as fashion accessories and as inkpens, and the birds that survived were often poisoned by lead. Hunted almost to extinction in the early 1900’s, scientists could only count 70 wild trumpeter swans by 1933. But after that startling data, biologists acted fast by setting up protections and moving swans to other territories, allowing new flocks to develop. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 provided some of their earliest protection. There are now more than 63,000 of these gorgeous swans in North America. That jump is tremendous, especially considering there were only 3,700 of them in 1968!
The Kirtland’s warbler is very fussy when it comes to its habitat. It only likes to nest in young dense jack pine forests over 80 acres in size that have been disturbed by wildfire. As difficult as it is to wrap our heads around, suppressing fires and protecting forests has damaged the warbler’s population. But instead of just setting everything on fire to help the birds recover, controlling brown-headed cowbird populations in Kirtland’s warbler territory has made the real difference. (Cowbirds are a parasitic species. They don’t raise their own chicks but instead lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and push out the host species’ babies.) So when conservationists ousted cowbirds from Kirtland’s warbler habitats in 1972, the rare birds’ numbers more than doubled from about 1000 individuals. At over 2,000 pairs and growing, they’re officially off the endangered species list. Many birdwatchers have this little sweetie on their life list, and it’s becoming easier and easier to check them off.
This species was once considered extinct. Zero known wild individuals. Nada. But in 1981, a teeny tiny population was found on a private ranch in Wyoming. The animals were reported to researchers, and a captive breeding program began. Even though they’re still one of the most endangered mammals on our continent, black-footed ferrets are being slowly re-released to the wild. The current estimate puts their wild population around 350 individuals. Having come back from near-extinction, one of the biggest challenges with the black-footed ferret is genetic diversity, so biologists are getting creative when it comes to saving them. Science to the rescue! In 2020, “Elizabeth Ann” was born. She is actually the very first-ever cloned US endangered species and omg is she adorable.
Aww, who doesn’t love pandas? I think I speak for most people when I say we’re grateful pandas still exist. Because of rapid deforestation, wild panda populations dropped down to about 1,000 individuals in the mid-80s. But conservationists were determined to save them. They acted so fast to set up preserves, maintain their dwindling habitats, and promote captive breeding, that these animals went from nearly extinct to removal from the IUCN’s Red List entirely. You read that right — pandas are no longer considered endangered! This classification isn’t due to sheer numbers, but instead thanks to tireless giant panda conservation efforts around the world. There are still only 1,864 in the wild, but that number would have been zero had it not been for decades of hard work.
True, none of these species is in the clear. Their numbers are still stomach-churningly low, but you know what? These successes deserve huge applause.
Conservation takes an enormous amount of money, effort, and time. Not to mention excruciating amounts of red-tape cutting and legislative persuasion. But these success stories are proof positive that no matter how close to extinction a species becomes, all that hard work is more than worth it.
This piece is also available to read on Medium.