We often talk about the negative effects we have on the planet, and the non-human inhabitants. I remember learning about extinct and endangered species as a young child, and feeling a panic stricken sense of doom. This anxiety and worry has never truly left me. What we rarely talk and hear about though, are the species that have been saved from a nearly inevitable end, which I think is strange… because it is SUCH good news!
The way the animals on this earth (including us) have evolved, means that extinction of certain species, subspecies, and geographical populations is inevitable, however the explosion of the human population and intense effect of our modern lives has put an enormous strain on the planet, and forced many animals to the brink of extinction that otherwise would have been thriving. Most species are incredibly important parts of our ecosystems, and are just as deserving of a chance at life as us humans. Since the year I was born, there have been almost 48 species of animals rescued from the brink of extinction, thanks in part to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. I think the one that has impacted me most, was the absolutely astonishing comeback of the world’s humpback whale population, however I will leave this story until lucky last as it is particularly special to me.
So, let’s start instead with the biggest cat on this beautiful globe, the Siberian tiger. Tigers are amazing creatures to behold, the sheer power you can sense in their huge, muscular bodies is equal parts impressive and terrifying. The silence of their huge, heavy paws as they touch the earth seems to defy the laws of physics. If you have ever taken the time to watch a tiger closely, perhaps on TV or in a zoo, you will have witnessed their calm, calculated way of assessing the world, and how it seems there must be such wisdom behind their eyes.
Before the beginning of the 20th century, tens of thousands of these magnificent creatures peacefully roamed their habitats, from the Far East of Russia, all the way through to the Korean Peninsula. Then came widespread and systematic hunting to make way for human development, and capture to be placed in zoos. Suddenly, in the 1940s, it was estimated that only 40 wild Siberian tigers remained, and it appeared to be an impossible task to save them from the fate of their cousins, the Caspian tigers. Even so, Russia brought in legal protections for the tiny Siberian tiger population in 1947, which halted the ongoing devastation, and since then, along with many breeding, conservation, rescue and reintroduction programs all over the world, recovery is slowly but surely happening. It is now estimated that the wild Siberian tiger population is over 500, and still growing steadily.
Still just as big and furry but in a much cuter, and less scary way, is the Panda. As sweet as they are, Pandas are…. Pretty lazy! They eat, move, and importantly, breed slowly, so couple this with the destruction of their habitats and widespread poaching, over the last 200 years their wild numbers have plummeted. In 2004, a poaching ban was enacted and Panda reserves were created to protect this species, and give them much needed respite to be able to very slowly repopulate. In the 10 years after this, the population grew by 17 percent, and they are now listed as vulnerable, rather than endangered.
In the 1900’s in North America, the use of a popular insecticide; DDT, compounded massive challenges, such as habitat loss, faced by the Bald Eagle population. It caused weakening of their eggs, and the population fell drastically from around 100,000, to just 830 in 1963. The US Government banned the use of DDT, as well as introducing other measures to allow the population to… soar… pardon the pun, back up to around 20,000 today.
I could go on and on, there’s the Arabian Oryx which became completely extinct in the wild in the 1970’s due to hunting, but captive breeding programs meant that they could be repopulated into the 7000’s.
After being declared a “pest” by the US government of the time, Grey Wolves were nearly culled to extinction in the 1960’s, and rescued by conservation efforts just in the nick of time. They now are slowly repopulating many of their natural habitats and number around 5000.
The Northern Elephant Seal, the Wild Turkey, the Black-footed Ferret, the California Condor, The Golden Lion Tamari, the Island Night Lizard, the Okarito Kiwi, the Brown Bear, the Peregrine Falcon, the North American Beaver, the West Indian Manatee, the Burmese Star Tortoise…. All could have been lost forever but have thrived when protected from the human errors of the past.
Now, I said I would leave the best until last…. And here it is.
As a little girl, I was pretty sure I would grow up to be a marine biologist. I loved the ocean and its inhabitants, but whales in particular were absolutely something special to me. Imagine my dismay and disgust when I learned about whaling, and how close humpback whales came to complete extinction.
While there is evidence of whaling in most cultures around the world dating back to prehistoric times, from the 16th, to the 19th century, commercial whaling hit a huge boom, and many species were hunted to near depletion, mainly for the use of the oil made from their blubber, and their meat. It’s important to note that before the invention of the more modern methods of whaling, many indigenous cultures had been whaling with minimal impact for many thousands of years, however as humankind came into the early and mid 1900s, many whale species had been so thoroughly drained by the modern Whaling industry that it was difficult to even find them.
Whaling continues to be an important part of many cultures and traditions, and while I myself will never personally support the intentional death of any animal, I can respect the significance this represents to so many people. I firmly believe that the true issue is the use of modern whaling techniques, the misuse of loopholes around whaling for scientific purposes, and commercial whaling for financial gain, not whaling for true cultural purposes which is generally a far more sustainable practice.
Now, enough preaching from me… In an effort not to protect the whales, but to improve the industry, many quotas, or enforced seasons were proposed between various whaling nations. These were mostly unsuccessful, there were too many loopholes, like; oh, we are only allowed to hunt whales for 3 months of the year rather than 12 months of the year now? Well then, we had better hurry and kill 4 times as many whales to make up for it!
This battle went on within the industry for many decades, however in 1978, consumer pressure had added to the whaling industry’s problem; people didn’t want whales to die for their products anymore! Finally, the International Whaling committee called for a ban on commercial whaling, which took effect in 1986.
While some countries such as Norway, Japan, and Iceland continue large scale-whaling, and other countries continue whaling on very small scales, for the most part, the whaling ban has been a huge success. From this time on, with the wellbeing of the world’s humpback whales in mind, we also have brought in rules and regulations to further protect them, such as keeping a distance of at least 100 yards, and following speed restrictions so as to reduce the risk of injury.
To say that most of the worlds humpback whale populations have bounced back in a miraculous fashion is a massive understatement. 8 out of 12 of the different populations are technically no longer endangered. Just one example is the population of whales that breed off the coast of Brazil. Following centuries of commercial whaling, in the mid 1900s, the population dipped to just 450 whales. This population is now estimated at being at around 26,000, which is only JUST shy of its original estimated amount of 27,000.
This amazing comeback makes my heart sing, and transports me back to a time in my childhood where every time I was in the water I could imagine being alongside a whale, thick, smooth skin gliding effortlessly through the water, marked by barnacles and scars, the only hint at what the whales experiences in its 80 odd year life has been, secrets I will never get to know. Strong, muscular fins and tail using the water to its advantage, pushing itself through the infinite ocean, using it’s natural intuition and mysterious wisdom to know where to go next.
Saving species of animals on the brink of extinction usually seems like an impossible task, but actually we have proven time and time again that with passion and dedication to conservation and protection by people willing to fight for the cause, it can absolutely be done. So, what’s your impossible task? What did you think up until now was unfortunate but inevitable, something you just have to accept? What can you do to challenge it, change it, fight for it? You just might just surprise yourself with the results…
Thanks so much for being here with me for this episode of good news, good night.