The saiga antelope makes a strange pin-up for the conservation world. With its odd bulbous nose and spindly legs, it is an unlovely looking creature – particularly when compared with wildlife favourites such as the polar bear or panda.
But the survival of Saiga tatarica tatarica is important, for it gives hope to biologists and activists who are trying to protect Earth’s other endangered species from the impact of rising populations, climate change and increasing pollution. Once widespread on the steppe lands of the former Soviet Union, the saiga has suffered two major population crashes in recent years and survived both – thanks to the endeavours of conservationists. It is a story that will be highlighted at a specially arranged wildlife meeting, the Conservation Optimism Summit, to be held at Dulwich College, London, this month and at sister events in cities around the world, including Cambridge, Washington and Hong Kong. The meetings have been organised to highlight recent successes in saving threatened creatures and to use these examples to encourage future efforts to halt extinctions of other species.
According to the summit’s organisers, there still are reasons to be cheerful when it comes to conservation, although they also acknowledge that the world’s wildlife remains in a desperate state thanks to swelling numbers of humans, climate change and spreading agriculture, which is destroying natural habitats. A recent report by WWF and the Zoological Society of London indicated that these factors have caused global populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles to decline by 58% since 1970, and that average annual decreases have now reached 2%, with no sign yet that this rate will slow down.
“It is certainly true that biodiversity across the planet is plummeting but we have to ask what the situation would look like if there were no protected areas, if there was no Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, and no anti-poaching patrols in Africa,” said Mike Hoffman, of Zoological Society of LondonZSL, one of the summit’s organisers.
“The answer is straightforward: it would be a lot worse. The trouble is that the public usually only hears the bad news. Successes get forgotten. As a result, people think there is nothing they can do about wildlife extinctions and that is not true. If it was not for conservation the world would be in a much worse state than it is at present.”
This point is backed by EJ Milner-Gulland, professor of biodiversity at Oxford University, who first developed the idea of the Conservation Optimism Summit. “We have got to change our ways and celebrate our successes if we are going to protect endangered creatures. If we are too gloomy about saving wildlife, young people will think there is nothing they can do and that would be tragic – and wrong.”
The troubled tale of the saiga antelope provided a crucial example of the successes that could be achieved, she said. Twenty-five years ago there were more than a million saiga – which grow to about 4ft in length –grazing over vast areas of steppe lands. However, after the Soviet Union’s breakup, authority and policing collapsed in many of its former states, and local economies disintegrated, while saiga horn became increasingly popular as a traditional medicine in nearby China. The result was a wave of uncontrolled hunting and poaching that caused the saiga’s population to crash. By 2000, there were fewer than 50,000.
A creature that was once ecologically stable was suddenly hurtling towards extinction. “I saw it happen in front of my eyes,” said Milner-Gulland, a world expert on the species. “It was a complete disaster. This was a species that no one knew about or cared about and it was heading for extinction. It could have made us utterly despaired. But it didn’t. My colleagues and I decided something should be done.”
Conservationists lobbied to have the species labelled as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and major NGOs started to pour money into projects to save the saiga. UN conservation rules were enacted and the governments of former Soviet states began to take protective measures. Large areas of Kazakhstan were marked as conservation zones. Slowly saiga numbers recovered until there were around 300,000 by 2014 – when the next disaster struck. A mysterious bacterium swept through herds that year and in a few weeks more than 200,000 saiga had died.
“It could have been the final blow. However, this time we had a network of people who cared about the saiga,” said Milner-Gulland. “We had sources of funding. We had governments who were committed to saving the saiga. As a result, we have already halted that recent drop in saiga numbers and expect we will soon be able to bring them back up again.”
The saga of the saiga’s survival is important, for it shows that although the saving of species is hard, relentless work, it can nevertheless be effective. “The crucial point about any conservation project is that you never stop. You never give up,” said Richard Young, head of Conservation Science at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. “It can take 30 years of sustained effort before you turn things round but it can be done.”
Young pointed to the success of the Durrell trust and other conservation groups in saving the echo parakeet. By the 1980s, only a dozen of these vividly plumed birds – which are unique to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean – were left in the wild. Once widespread across the island, Mauritius’s echo parakeet population had been devastated by the destruction of the dense forests in which it lived and the introduction of feral predators that included the mongoose.
The echo was heading for extinction until an urgent rescue programme was launched. “Conservationists dealt with the invasive predators, they erected carefully designed nest boxes to protect the echo, launched captive breeding and release programmes, and provided food when the birds faced starvation,” Young told the Observer. “They kept that up for decades. It was an incredible effort but it was worth it. There are now hundreds of echo parakeets in Mauritius. When you go for a walk in a forest there you can see these stunning, vocal birds everywhere you go. They are a fantastic symbol of what is possible in conservation.”
The echo parakeet’s story is not widely known outside conservation circles. By contrast, the giant panda remains one of the best known of all the planet’s threatened species and has been adopted as the official symbol of WWF. It is also a conservation success story as was demonstrated last September when it was officially moved off the red list of “endangered species” and put on the “vulnerable species” list after it had been brought back from near extinction by determined conservation work by the Chinese government.
Spreading agriculture had seriously depleted the panda’s bamboo food source and so protected reserves were established. As a result, by 2014 the giant panda’s population had risen by 17% in a decade to reach 1,864 animals in the wild. Last week, the Chinese authorities announced they now planned to go even further and would combine existing reserves into a single giant panda preserve that would be three times the size of America’s Yellowstone national park.
“It will be a haven for biodiversity and provide protection for the whole ecological system,” said Hou Rong, director of the Chengdu research base for giant panda breeding.
Other successes have been achieved with simpler approaches. Consider the issue of ghost fishing, which occurs when fishing nets are lost or dumped at sea. The old net gets snagged on a reef or a wreck and traps fish that die and in turn attract scavengers which get caught in the same net. Tens of thousands of turtles, seals and other marine creatures are believed to perish this way every year. Worse, a ghost net can continue to wreak destruction for decades and they are now considered to be among the greatest killers in our oceans.
One of the worst areas for ghost fishing is the Philippines where, in 2012, Interface, a manufacturer of commercial carpet tiles, set up a remarkable project in collaboration with the ZSL called Net-Works. Local people are encouraged to gather their old nets before they are discarded and to sell them, through Net-Works, so that they can be recycled into yarn to make carpet tiles. In several areas, the scheme has brought about significant reductions in the number of ghost nets and made money for local people.
“We’ve cleaned up a major source of pollution and helped local communities make a modest income from conservation activities,” said Nicholas Hill, one of the founders of Net-Works. Now the project has expanded to the shores of Lake Ossa, in Cameroon. Nets dumped there have trapped and killed the lake’s young manatees. Their removal, and subsequent sale as a source of carpet tiles, has again boosted local conservation activities and helped protect the manatee.
A similar tale is provided by Kirsten Forsberg, whose Planeta Océano organisation began work in 2012 to try to save the giant manta ray, which was being dangerously overfished in the Pacific Ocean off South America. Although mantas can measure more than three metres in length, they mainly eat microscopic organisms. “Ecuador had legal protection but there was none for Peruvian waters and the mantas were migrating into these, where they were being caught and consumed locally,” Forsberg told the Observer last week.
For a creature that typically produces a single pup every five years or so, this depletion was serious and was causing numbers to plummet. Forsberg and colleagues began collaborating with fishermen, schools and communities and began pressing the government to ban all manta fishing. At the end of 2015 they succeeded and a ban was imposed for Peruvian waters. Last year, Forsberg was made a Rolex laureate for this work and plans to use her prize money to help local fishermen diversify into tourist trips for divers wanting to see manta rays. “Manta ray watching is a tourist industry that is now worth millions of dollars a year,” she said. “It’s a perfect substitution.”
Closer to home, conservationists point to their success in saving the large blue butterfly in Britain, where it became extinct in 1979 but which has been reintroduced from reserves in the rest of Europe and is now established in parts of south-west England. Similarly, in several Middle Eastern nations the Arabian oryx, which was wiped out in the wild in the 1970s, has been successfully reintroduced using animals bred in zoos and private preserves. Conservationists are planning to follow up this success with a programme aimed at establishing a population in Chad of a sister species, the scimitar horned oryx, which is extinct in the wild.
Such success stories and ambitious plans are worth keeping in mind for the planet still faces an avalanche of threatened extinctions over the coming decades. Indeed, humanity’s impact on the Earth is now so profound that scientists last year recommended that a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene – needs to be declared.
We are dumping plastics in the oceans, draining wetlands, melting ice caps and destroying forests. Everywhere you turn, the world is being changed by humans and the consequences for wildlife are grim. Fish, mammals and reptiles are being pushed towards extinction. And while conservationists can claim successes, there is still a vast amount that needs to be done.
“The real question is: if conservation works, why are things continuing to get worse?” asked Hoffman. “There are two alternative explanations. One is that we are doing the wrong thing. The second is that we are doing the right thing, but we are not doing enough of it. All the evidence suggests that the latter is the right one. When we tackle a conservation problem we tend to get it right. Our approaches may not always be perfect and may need improvement in efficiencies, but the real point is that we are simply not doing enough. We know what to do but we are under-resourced and understaffed.”
One recent paper suggested that it would cost around $80bn to achieve a significant improvement in the state of the world’s wildlife. “That sounds a lot but it is only 20% of what the world spends on soft drinks,” said Hoffman.
It remains to be seen how long the world will wait before it realises what it is losing and begins to stump up funding on that level. It may never do so, of course. In the meantime, calls for conservation action mount.
One particularly exciting prospect is offered by the Tasmanian devil, a carnivorous marsupial only found in the wild on the Australian island. “Since the 1990s, its population has been devastated by a facial tumour that has spread through the species and threatened its viability in the wild,” said Hoffman. “However, about a month ago there was a breakthrough where scientists demonstrated Tasmanian devils could be treated so that their immune systems could start to fight the cancer. It would require major interventions – capturing and treating animals – to do the trick but it is a very hopeful success in saving the saiga is a reminder of what can be achieved, though there also is a final twist. The antelope has a Mongolian subspecies that until recently had a population of around 12,000. However, scientists discovered a few months ago that thousands of Saiga tatarica mongolica have recently been killed by a viral infection known as goat plague, which has spread to the Mongolian saiga from domestic goats and sheep.
“We are expecting the mortality rate to be up to 80% of the whole population,” said Milner-Gulland. “In fact, all of Mongolia’s unique fauna is at risk, including the Mongolian gazelle and goitred gazelle and also carnivores that hunt them, like snow leopards. The disease is also likely to spread through Kazakhstan and neighbouring countries over the next few years, putting other saiga populations at risk.”
A straightforward but expensive solution is available, however. “There is an effective vaccine that could halt the disease in livestock but it would be an expensive and logistically difficult operation,” said Milner-Gulland.
“The Mongolian government is now considering how best to control the outbreak and conservation organisations like WWF and the Saiga Conservation Alliance are mounting a response. And of course, we have had success in the past. So there is hope.”