What are the new challenges of protecting and preserving our most endangered species?article
Humans have given many animals a hard time. Endangered species have been hunted to the point of extinction, we’ve destroyed their habitats and, despite the efforts of many, the dangers to the world's wildlife population continue to grow.
More worrying for the planet’s ecosystem is a recent survey that estimates 75% of the world’s flying insects have been wiped out over the last 30 years. Since insects pollinate plants along with providing food for a host of creatures, that’s bad news for us as well as birds. It’s part of a disturbing trend that could see 67% of all wildlife disappear by 2020, according to the WWF. Consequently, the work of endangered animal programs is increasingly more important for their survival, and ours.
Take the efforts of the Monterey Bay Aquarium off the Californian coast to protect Sea Otters since 1984. With a million hairs per square inch, otter pelts were prized during the nineteenth century fur trade, which decimated their population to just 2,000. Thanks to a ‘rescue and release’ scheme by the Aquarium, their numbers recovered to 125,000.
The plight of the Hairy-nosed Otter in Cambodia, on the other hand, shows the difficulties in animal conservation even when protections are in place. Thought extinct in the 90s, surveys discovered groups still surviving. However, with impoverished communities continuing to hunt the animal, laws to protect them were difficult to enforce. Therefore, organizations like Conservation International have started to educate local people as well as restoring the otters’ habitat.
These two initiatives are examples of in situ animal conservation – helping sustain a species in its own environment. When numbers drastically reduce, however, it’s sometimes better to remove them from their natural habitat and try to breed them back from the brink of extinction before releasing them into the wild.
This ex situ method of animal reintroduction is probably the most famous – think wolves coming back to Yellowstone Park – but it comes with its own set of problems.
"A 2008 University of Exeter study of 17 species including tigers, bears and lynx found that most carnivores bred in captivity die back in the wild, having only a 33% chance of survival. "
Growing up in the relative comfort of a zoo prevents them from learning necessary hunting and social skills, so they’re more likely to starve and less likely to breed. Crucially, they’re also less afraid of humans than their feral counterparts, with disastrous effects.
Becoming too soft in captivity to compete with wild rivals is not just a problem for carnivores. Pandas can lose their edge as well. The first bear reintroduced in 2003 was killed after a fight with another male. That led Chinese zoos to start breeding pandas in captivity before releasing them with their mothers into semi-wild enclosures where they can be trained to fend for themselves. At the right time, they’re released into protected areas wearing radio collars. Seven pandas have been reintroduced in total, with one female crossing into a new reserve in 2017 for the first time.
But keeping rare animals alive in captivity, especially if they’re a species being handled for the first time, can be hazardous.
The tiny Kihansi Spray Toad was discovered in 1996 at the bottom of the Kihansi Gorge in Tanzania, thriving on the unique habitat created by the mist from the waterfalls there. Unfortunately, a dam built at the gorge killed most of the population. A sample group shipped to zoos in the United States proved difficult to keep alive.
To feed the toads, for example, they had to breed several generations of insects to ensure they were disease-free. Despite these precautions, some died from the deadly chytrid fungus, known to cause amphibian extinctions. Eventually enough bred to reintroduce them to the Kihansi Gorge, where a system of sprinklers recreates the spray from the waterfall.
In 2012, DHL transported tigers from Australia and America to London Zoo in the UK. To ensure their safety on board, custom crates were made with infrared cameras to monitor their wellbeing throughout the journey. The company also rerouted part of its network to ship the animals in less than 24 hours. As well as the tigers, DHL has helped relocate gorillas, manatees and pandas, among others. Although their re-establishment may be in question, the transport of endangered animals is completely secure.
"The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is mere tenacity."
Amelia Earhart, Pilot
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