2023: A Case for Optimism

The beginning of a new year often makes people philosophical, thinking about what has or hasn’t worked the year before and what they resolve to improve. Most of this is positive, at least for me. Lately, though, and I imagine also for many, it’s getting easier to let those thoughts become tinged with concern for the state of the planet.

Take, for instance, the collapse of biodiversity. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Sixth Extinction Elizabeth Kolbert presents stories of species that have come to an end at the hand of humans. She points out that we’re experiencing a loss of species unprecedented since an asteroid hit the Earth, killing off the (non-avian) dinosaurs.

The World Wildlife Fund estimates that 10,000 species go extinct every year. So, that’s about four species in the time it will take me to write this post. Granted, most of these are beetles, many of which are endemic to individual trees in the Amazon rainforest. But there’s a point made by ecologist John Lawton that every species contributes to the ecosystem as a whole. His “Rivet Hypothesis” uses the analogy of rivets in an airplane wing to compare the increasingly critical effect that the loss of each species has on the function of an ecosystem. The airplane stays in the air if one rivet is taken out. Even a few. But there’s a critical point, like the straw that broke the camel’s back, where the loss of just one more rivet causes the plane fall out of the sky.

That said, some important programs are working. Many of these focus on those large, charismatic species that are icons of conservation. While, they’re not inherently more important that smaller creatures, saving habitat for larger animals brings the smaller ones along. For the rest of this new year’s post, I’m going to focus on positive stories in which conservation is working and species are being successfully reintroduced or rehabilitated.

Cheetahs Return to India. Cheetahs became extinct in India in 1952, due to hunting and habitat loss. In mid-September, eight African cheetahs between the ages of two and six were airlifted from Namibia and brought to India. The cheetahs have been based at Kuno-Palpur National Park in the state of Madhya Pradesh, which has the right climate and appropriate habitat. The Indian Government said the return of the cheetah would have important conservation ramifications and help stem the degradation of biodiversity. The reintroduction was coincided with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 72nd birthday and was celebrated by cheetah advocates and scientists. Read more here.

Wild Bison Re-released into the UK. In the United Kingdom, wild European bison were released last July into a forest in Kent in England’s south-east, to help manage this ancient Canterbury woodland. At the time of their release the herd was kept in a 12-acre area, adjusting to looking after themselves. The herd has now been released into a wider 123-acre area of West Blean Woods. In September one of the bison gave birth to a calf, who is thriving in her new environment. More from Kent Wildlife Trust at this link.

Photo: Arthur Chapman 2008

Brush-tailed Bettongs Reestablished in South Australia. After more than a century, the brush-tailed bettong (aka woylie, or “rat kangaroo”) has been re-introduced. The animals used to be found in more than two-thirds of Australia but, like so many other native marsupials, were almost wiped out when cats and foxes were introduced by Europeans. Twelve male and 28 female brush-tailed bettongs have now been re-introduced to mainland South Australia. Read the South Australian Government’s press release here.

Coral Reefs Regenerated off Grand Bahama. Researchers working in the Bahamas are introducing innovative methods to farm, grow and plant healthy corals more efficiently than traditional methods, which haven’t been able to keep pace with climate-driven die-off. These advances include growing them in tanks on land, moving from a coral ‘gardening’ style to a ‘factory’ setup, to improving growth rates and resiliency to the changing environment. The process involves a procedure called microfragmenting, in which coral is broken into very tiny pieces, before being grown, boosting growth and encouraging early spawning.

Vultures Return to Europe. Vultures are critical recyclers in the environment. Not only does their scavenging clean up carrion, but can neutralize pathogens that might be found there. Across Europe, vultures have been on the decline because of the lack of availability of wild food and the use of poison baits to kill pests. Through providing supplemental feeding, groups like Rewilding Europe have been able to foster their resurgence. Read more about their project here.

These projects and many others like them show that the dedication of people bringing back threatened species is paying off. It’s exciting to start 2023 bolstered by these successes. If we’re going to make a real difference to our biodiversity challenges worldwide, these people are the true heroes in a fight for their survival. I, for one, am very grateful.

Wishing you all a very happy new year.

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