9 Iconic Animals Brought Back From the Brink

The recovery of these beleaguered species proves that conservation action works.

Profile view of a humpback whale underwater.

Christopher Michel / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Certain species once considered at risk of extinction are actually recovering thanks to conservation efforts. Inspired by those success stories, Wildlife Conservation Society scientists in the Global Conservation Program put together a list of nine wildlife species that have seen a roaring resurgence in their native habitats. Impressively, some of these species have been able to bounce back from the brink of existence in only a few decades; they're proof that in the world of wildlife, it's not all gloom and doom.

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Tigers in Western Thailand

A tiger looks ahead.

Mark Evans / Getty Images

Long-term work to reduce poaching in Thailand's Huai Kha Khaeng (HKK) Wildlife Sanctuary has paid off for the tigers (Panthera tigris), who went from a population of just 41 in 2010 to 66 in 2019 – an increase topping over 60 percent. In addition, tigers dispersing out of HKK provide a solid foundational population for the species to continue to recover throughout the Western Forest Complex of Thailand. The return of this resurgent cat has a halo effect benefiting the bordering Taninthayi region of Myanmar, notes WCS.

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Humpback Whales

A humpback whale launching itself from the water.

 Alfredo Martinez / Getty Images

Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) have been hunted to the brink of extinction; some populations dwindled to less than 10 percent of their original population before a hunting moratorium was introduced in 1966. They were listed on the Endangered Species Act in 1973.

Despite their dire past, some humpback whale populations have recovered as much as 90 percent of their pre-whaling numbers. Internationally, most humpback populations have increased as a result of worldwide protective regulation, and the IUCN Red List categorizes these large marine mammals as "Least Concern."

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Burmese Star Tortoises

A Burmese star tortoise in the shade.

Josh More / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Endemic to Myanmar's central dry zone, the Burmese star tortoise (Geochelone platynota) was considered ecologically extinct after skyrocketing demand for the species in southern Chinese wildlife markets of the mid-1990s decimated the population. WCS took the case to heart and initiated an active breeding program in partnership with the Turtle Survival Alliance and the Myanmar Government.

The coalition began with around 175 individuals (mostly rescued from wildlife traffickers) and created three “assurance colonies” at wildlife sanctuaries – complete with breeding centers, husbandry, and veterinary care – to prevent the total extinction of the species. As of 2019, there are an inspiring 14,000-plus wild and captive animals, with some 750 that have been released into wild areas of the sanctuaries.

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Greater Adjutant Storks

A greater adjutant stork perched on a branch.

Allen Michaud / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Due to the unchecked collection of eggs and chicks, along with the destruction of its flooded forest habitat, the world’s rarest stork, the greater adjutant (Leptoptilos dubius), suffered disastrous blows to its population. But with the protection of the flooded forest on Cambodia's Tonle Sap (Southeast Asia's largest lake) by community rangers, the species is experiencing a remarkable turn of good fortune.

The Cambodia Ministry of Environment and WCS created a program in which local people are paid to guard nests (rather than deplete them). In just a decade, the greater adjutant population grew from just 30 pairs to over 200 in 2019, which accounts for a whopping 50 percent of the global population, which sits at approximately 800 to 1200 mature greater adjutants.

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Kihansi Spray Toads

A Kihansi spray toad on a leaf.

Josh More / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Kihansi spray toad (Nectophrynoides asperginis) holds the distinction of being the first amphibian species to be successfully revived in the wild after being declared extinct. These Tanzanian natives were nearly doomed when a hydroelectric dam was built near the Kihansi river waterfall – the only place they exist on earth – which dramatically altered the misty environment they need to survive. The toads were classified as "Extinct in the Wild" by the IUCN in 2009, but not before the Bronx Zoo was asked by the Tanzanian government to collect and breed some individuals while they plotted for the species's survival. Eventually, the government created an artificial misting system to replicate the spray zone from the waterfall; since then, the Bronx Zoo has sent around 8,000 toads back to Tanzania to be released into their natural habitat.

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Maleos in Sulawesi

A maleo raises its leg.

Josh More / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

With a focus on nesting ground management, seminatural hatcheries, and local guardianship in Indonesia's Bogani Nani Wartabone National Park, endemic and endangered maleos (Macrocephalon maleo) are on the rapid road to recovery. And thanks to the development of successful egg incubation methods at the Bronx Zoo, over 15,000 maleo chicks have been released into the wild.

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A macaw looks ahead.

Laszlo Szirtesi / Getty Images

Poaching and habitat loss have been bad news for the endangered scarlet macaw (Ara macao) of Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve. Pushed to the brink of extinction with only around 250 left in the MBR, the beautiful birds have been coming back due to 15 years of conservation efforts, including law enforcement monitoring, community-based conservation, field science, and aviculture and husbandry. This has all resulted in significant success, and in 2017 the species reached a significant milestone: Average fledglings per active nest reached 1.14, a 17-year high.

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A jaguar bats a paw at a snake in the water.

Chris Brunskill / Getty Images

Pity the jaguar (Panthera onca), the largest cat in the Americas. Threatened by habitat depletion because of forests being razed for development and agriculture, the jaguar has also fallen victim to being killed by humans in retaliation for hunting their livestock. The jaguar is now found only in the extreme northern limits of Argentina in its southern range of habitat, having been eliminated from much of its wider historic stomping grounds across Central America, explains WCS.

Thankfully, after more than 30 years of conservation efforts, jaguar population levels are improving. At WCS sites between 2002-2016, populations are remaining stable and steadily improving, averaging 7.8 percent growth per year. According to WCS, jaguars are returning to parts of their northern range – they might soon even be spotted in the southern United States.

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American Bison

A herd of bison in Yellowstone National Park.

William Campbell / Getty Images

After roaming the wilds of North America in populations of tens of millions, by the early 1900s the iconic American Bison was decimated as a species, with only 1,100 individuals remaining. Thankfully, soon thereafter conservationists doubled down on their efforts to preserve the species; WCS founder William Hornaday rallied conservationists, politicians, and ranchers to start new herds of bison around the country. This early campaign was the first major wildlife conservation success in world history, and marked the birth of the American conservation movement.

Conservation efforts persist today as WCS works with tribal, government, and private ranching partners to increase the number of wild bison in North America and reduce conflict between bison and cattle, among other important initiatives.