9 Iconic Animals Brought Back From the Brink

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

CC BY 2.0. Christopher Michel/Flickr

There is a lot of grim news in the world, especially when it comes to wildlife. But it's not all gloom and doom, sixth mass extinction or not. Case in point: WCS scientists in the Global Conservation Program put together a list of nine wildlife species that are recovering thanks to conservation action.

1. Humpback Whales

humpback whale
 © Julie Larsen Maher (used with permission)

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

Now, in some places they have recovered to as much as 70 percent and 90 percent of their pre-whaling numbers. Internationally, most humpback populations have increased as a result of worldwide protection, and all but four of the world’s populations have been removed from the Endangered Species List.

2. Tigers in Western Thailand

© WCS (used with permission)  

Long-term work to reduce poaching in Thailand's Huai Kha Khaeng (HKK) Wildlife Sanctuary has paid off for the tigers (Panthera tigris), who have gone from 41 in 2010 to 66 today – a 60+ percent increase. In addition, tigers dispersing out of HKK are providing a foundation for a recovering population across the entire Western Forest Complex of Thailand, with benefits even spilling over across the border into the Taninthayi region of Myanmar, notes WCS.

3. Burmese Star Tortoises

Burmese star turtle
 © WCS/TSA (used with permission)

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

They 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 ensure against the total extinction of the species. Today, there are an inspiring 14,000+ wild and captive animals, with some 750 that have been released into wild areas of the sanctuaries.

4. Greater Adjutant Storks

 © Eleanor Briggs/WCS (used with permission)

Unchecked collection of eggs and chicks, along with the destruction of its flooded forest habitat, proved disastrous for the world’s rarest stork, the greater adjutant (Leptoptilos dubius). But with the protection of the flooded forest on Cambodia's Tonle Sap (Southeast Asia's largest lake) by community rangers, the stork is on the up and up.

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 has grown from just 30 to over 200 pairs – accounting for 50 percent of the global population of approximately 800 to 1200 mature greater adjutants.

5. Kihansi Spray Toads

spray toads
© Julie Larsen Maher (used with permission)  

The Kihansi spray toad (Nectophrynoides asperginis) holds the distinction of being the first amphibian species to be successfully restored to the wild after being declared extinct in nature. These Tanzanian natives are found nowhere else on the planet, but were doomed when a hydroelectric dam was built, dramatically altering the mist environment that they require. 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 as a safeguard against extinction while an artificial misting system was created to replicate the spray zone from the gorge’s waterfall, notes WCS.

Since then, with the new misting system in place, the Bronx Zoo has sent around 8,000 toads back to Tanzania, with the latest release of 1,000 zoo-born Kihansis set free in 2016.

6. Maleos in Sulawesi

 © WCS (used with permission)

With a focus on nesting ground management, semi-natural 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. So far, over 15,000 maleo chicks have been released into the wild.

7. Guatemala’s Macaws

 © Camila Ferrara (used with permission)

Poaching and habitat loss have been bad news for the endangered scarlet macaw (Ara macao) of Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR). Pushed to 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, with this year seeing the highest fledging rate in 17 years of monitoring.

8. Jaguars Range-Wide

 © Julie Larsen Maher (used with permission)

Pity the jaguar (Panthera onca), the largest cat in the Americas. Threatened by habitat depletion because of the razing of forest for development and agriculture, the jaguar has also been a victim of killing in response to the loss of livestock. The jaguar is now found only in the extreme northern limits of Argentina in its southern range, while it has been eliminated across much of its historic range in Central America, explains WCS.

But after more than 30 years of conservation efforts, jaguar populations are remaining stable and even steadily improving at WCS sites. "The growth rate averaged 7.8 percent a year across our sites, with a 3-fold increase in Bolivia’s Madidi National Park alone. Jaguars have shown signs of recovery in their northern range," writes WCS, "and may possibly return to the southern U.S."

9. American Bison

American bison
 © Julie Larsen Maher (used with permission)

After roaming the wilds of North America in populations of tens of millions, by the early 1900s we managed to decimate the iconic American bison to fewer than 1,100 individuals. Yay, us. Conservationists have worked to protect and restore bison since the early 20th century when William Hornaday rallied conservationists, politicians, and ranchers to start new herds of bison. This early campaign 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 work and programs, WCS currently has a breeding program to establish a herd of pure bison with the goal to be able to provide animals for restoration programs in the American West.