There has been a lot of good news for endangered and “missing” wildlife lately, which seems like a breath of fresh air amid all the dire headlines about rapid climate change and environmental degradation. Some populations of endangered species have increased, some atrocious and injurious practices have decreased, some long-absent animals have been reintroduced and some natural habitats have been protected.
Here are just five recent wildlife stories to celebrate:
1) The giant panda population is on the rise. According to World Wildlife Fund, the giant panda population is growing. In just a decade, numbers have increased by nearly 17 percent. It’s estimated that now, at minimum, 1,864 giant pandas exist in the wild.
In late February 2015, China announced the results of its Fourth National Giant Panda Survey, which was conducted in 2014. From that review came more good news: not only have the wild panda numbers increased over the past decade, but since 2003 there has been a 1.8 percent increase in giant panda geographic range.
These charismatic members of the Ursidae scientific family are found only in China’s Ganzu, Shaanxi and Sichuan provinces. Since the last survey was taken, China has 27 new panda nature reserves, bringing that number to 67. Most of the wild giant pandas—1,246—live within these nature reserves. That’s a bonus, since the approximately 34 percent that live outside protected areas face higher risks to their survival.
2) Shark finning has decreased. Until recently, an estimated 100 million sharks have been killed annually for shark fin soup, a popular dish across Asia and predominantly in Mainland China. WildAid, a U.S.-based organization that focuses on reducing demand for wildlife products, states that some shark populations have declined by up to 98 percent in the last 15 years and nearly one-third of pelagic shark species are listed as threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
China became the world’s largest market for shark fins due to the populace’s rising wealth and desire for luxury items. In 2006, a survey showed that 75 percent of Chinese were unaware that shark fin soup was made from sharks (the dish is called “fish wing soup” in Mandarin), while 19 percent believed that the fins grew back. But after a public information campaign created by WildAid and other shark conservation groups that ran in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan, more than 76,000 people in Malaysia and 70,000 in Hong Kong had signed the “I’m FINished with Fins” pledge by 2014. Of Chinese consumers surveyed online, 85 percent of them said they gave up shark fin soup within the past three years.
The Chinese government banned shark fin soup from being served at state events in 2012. In October 2014, the Malaysian government announced a government banquet ban on shark fins. A number of large hotel chains have stopped serving shark fin soup and more than 20 airlines have agreed not to transport them.
Overall, according to data recently collected by WildAid, sales of shark fins have fallen 50 to 70 percent; and in Guangzhou, considered to be the center of the shark fin trade in China, sales have dropped by 82 percent.
Just last month, in February 2015, the government of Madagascar created the country’s first shark sanctuary to protect 19 shark species. The law that creates the sanctuary also grants local communities exclusive use and management rights to fishing areas. One-third of the shark species protected by this sanctuary have become severely threatened by unregulated fishing. This new refuge should greatly help to protect the sharks in this region.
3) The first wild herd of wood bison on U.S. soil in more than 100 years is well on the way to being established in rural Alaska. Last week, what will become the first wild herd of wood bison in the United States in more than a century were safely delivered to a rural Alaska village. The 100 animals—50 cows, of which about 25 are pregnant, and 50 juveniles age two or less—will be released from Shageluk, the staging area for the animals’ release, into the Innoko Flats, about 350 miles southwest of Fairbanks, in one to two weeks.
For unknown reasons, after flourishing for thousands of years in Alaska, wood bison slowly started to disappear in the 20th century. Larger than plains bison, wood bison are North America’s largest land animals. Adult bulls can weigh more than 2,000 pounds and cows up to 1,200 pounds.
While wood bison are a threatened species, this population will be exempt from certain restrictions in the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has declared that wood bison reintroduced in Alaska will be considered an experimental population not essential to the continued existence of the species. Therefore, they will be under the management of state wildlife officials.
Nevertheless, getting a species returned to its native homeland to live in the wild is a positive step forward.
4) A new elk herd is being introduced to Wisconsin. Just last Friday, March 27, 2015, 26 elk from Kentucky arrived at their new home in the Black River State Forest in west-central Wisconsin. Although 25 elk were reintroduced in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest near Clam Lake in the northern part of the state in 1995, this is the first time elk have been reintroduced to a state forest in Wisconsin. As many as 150 elk will be brought in from Kentucky over a three- to five-year period; up to 75 of them will be added to the existing Clam Lake herd with a long-term population goal of 1,400 elk. The other 75 will be used to establish the new elk herd in the Black River State Forest with a long-term population goal of 390 elk.
Currently, the elk are being held in a seven-acre acclimation pen within the Black River State Forest. They will remain there for a minimum of 75 days to satisfy health-testing requirements and to allow them to become familiar with their new surroundings.
The elk will be released in early summer. As a Wisconsinite, I look forward this fall to hearing elk bugling in the central part of the state for the first time in more than 150 years.
5) More habitat for Canada lynx has just been set aside in the U.S. In September 2014, the Center for Biological Diversity announced that 25 million acres in Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Washington and Wyoming have been designated as Protected Critical Habitat for Canada lynx. Since the cats face a broad array of threats, including climate change, development, snowmobiles and trapping, they need every acre they can get if they’re going to avoid extinction here.
Canada lynx were once abundant in northeast Washington, but they have been unable to recover from historic overtrapping and habitat loss. This new, critical habitat designation will now require that federal agencies ensure that any actions, such as the construction of new buildings or maintaining snowmobile trails, will not adversely modify or destroy this lynx environment.
Some scientists and conservationists, however, are worried by the fact that the new named area excludes just over 1.6 million acres in the southern Rockies in Colorado and the Kettle Range in northeast Washington that are known to have populations of lynx. For example, the Kettle Range, which is situated between the North Cascades and northern Rocky Mountains, serves as a key linkage in a chain of lynx population “islands” across the Pacific Northwest. Washington’s lynx populations depend on genetic and demographic interchange with lynx in the Rockies and Canada for long-term survival.
While designating critical habitat in the Kettle Range is integral to the conservation of lynx populations across the West, for now the new designation does provide vast, much-needed habitat protection for the engaging cats.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,