FAUNA AND FLORA INTERNATIONAL: RESCUED FROM THE JAWS OF EXTINCTION

EARTHSHOT PRIZE

In conservation, it’s important to celebrate the victories, however small. Success stories have an importance that transcends their intrinsic value as morale boosters in a world crying out for good news. Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has a track record in turning around apparently lost causes, and the seven examples here are a salutary reminder that even species in desperate straits can be resurrected.

ARABIAN ORYX

Until 1962, the Arabian oryx was a relatively obscure desert antelope with a one-way ticket to extinction. Hunters equipped with automatic weapons and motorised vehicles were decimating the wild population. With financial help from the recently formed WWF, FFI devised and executed an ambitious rescue plan, dubbed Operation Oryx.

 

Archive photograph of a captive-born Arabian oryx calf. Credit: Anthony Shepherd

An expedition was mounted to what is now South Yemen with the aim of capturing several of the last remaining wild oryx, which would form the nucleus of a captive herd. A breeding programme was established, initially comprising the three captured oryx and a female from London Zoo. Three decades later, that number had risen to 1,600 animals, distributed across zoos and collections worldwide.

In 1982, ten oryx were released into the open desert in central Oman. Although heavily guarded and intensively studied, this herd was completely independent. Today, over 1,000 Arabian oryx are running wild across the Middle East, the first ever example of an animal being successfully reintroduced into its original habitat after it had been declared extinct in the wild.

The species was reclassified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 2011, official recognition of a remarkable recovery. Hunting remains a serious threat to this day, but the eleventh-hour rescue of the Arabian oryx is one of FFI’s enduring legacies.

MOUNTAIN GORILLA

Sir David Attenborough’s iconic mountain gorilla sequence in Life on Earth, and his determination to raise awareness of their plight, led to FFI launching the multifaceted Mountain Gorilla Project – the precursor of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme – to help combat the poaching and habitat loss that were threatening to wipe out these gentle giants.

 

Proceeds from the sale of this 1979 FFI Christmas card helped support mountain gorilla conservation. Credit: Bruce Pearson/FFI

Thanks to transboundary collaboration and constructive community engagement, mountain gorilla numbers have since increased to the point where experts have seen fit to downgrade this great ape’s IUCN Red List status from Critically Endangered to Endangered. It’s a fitting reward for the dedication and bravery of conservationists and park staff operating against a backdrop of civil war, unrest and social deprivation

 

PEMBA FLYING FOX

In the early 1990s, the Pemba flying fox, named after the remote Tanzanian island to which it is confined, was close to extinction. Hunted as a source of food and deprived of its traditional roost sites due to widespread deforestation, its population was down to just a few hundred.

Pemba flying foxes at one of the island’s key roosting sites. Credit: Evan Bowen Jones/FFI

FFI began supporting a broad spectrum of measures to rescue this critically endangered fruit bat in 1995, including a public awareness campaign about its plight. The communities on Pemba were shocked to learn that a species unique to their island was in such dire straits. They took little persuading to mobilise themselves into actively protecting the bats, and put in place their own local and island-wide by-laws.

As a result, many of the most important roost sites are now secure and the use of shotguns to kill the bats is now largely prohibited. The Pemba flying fox population has recovered dramatically – to over 22,000 individuals at the last count.

ANTIGUAN RACER

When FFI and partners rode to its rescue in 1995, the Antiguan racer was probably the world’s rarest snake, down to just 50 individuals on a tiny, rat-infested islet. Some conservationists advised against intervention, on the basis that the racer was too rare and too unpopular to recover.

Today, the wild population exceeds 1,100, distributed across three separate offshore islands from where rats and other invasive predators have been eradicated.

Female Antiguan racer on a rat-free offshore island. Credit: Jenny Daltry/FFI

CHINESE MAGNOLIAS

Despite their popularity as ornamental trees, many magnolia species have been sliding virtually unnoticed towards extinction in the wild. In 2005, FFI’s Global Trees Campaign intervened to rescue a critically endangered but hitherto overlooked species of Chinese magnolia.

Confined to a remote tract of karst rainforest in southern Yunnan, Magnolia sinica had dwindled almost to the point of no return despite enjoying nominal protection. Its plight was symptomatic of a wider problem with magnolia species across China’s reserves.

A critically endangered Magnolia sinica in flower, China. Credit: Jackson Xu/FFI

Working with protected area staff, local partners and the surrounding communities, we boosted the wild population of M. sinica through the reintroduction of nursery-grown saplings and helped strengthen protected area management to improve the survival prospects of all China’s threatened magnolias.

The Global Trees Campaign is now shining the spotlight on another iconic magnolia species in dire need, this time in northern Vietnam.

SIAMESE CROCODILE

The Siamese crocodile was feared extinct until its rediscovery in 2000 by an FFI-led survey team in Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains. This remote wilderness harbours most of the surviving wild population of the critically endangered reptile, which is estimated to comprise around 250 adult crocodiles.

Working in close collaboration with the Cambodian government and local communities, FFI has been spearheading efforts to protect the country’s remaining wild crocodiles and their habitat by establishing sanctuaries that are protected by community wardens.

To bolster the fragmented populations of this slow-breeding reptile, we helped establish Cambodia’s first conservation breeding programme and launched an initiative to release pure-bred individuals back into the wild at suitable sites in the Cardamom Mountains. The latest release – the most ambitious to date – gave another 25 juvenile crocodiles their first taste of freedom.

A satellite-tagged Siamese crocodile released into the river at Chhay Reap, Cambodia. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI

The Siamese crocodile is still on the critical list, but the intensive care that this species has received from FFI and our in-country partners since its rediscovery is beginning to pay real dividends. Step by step, one of the world’s rarest reptiles is being brought back from the brink of extinction.

JOINED-UP THINKING

When people come together and take collective action to save species, extraordinary things happen. The seemingly impossible becomes possible. We would do well to remember this as we find ourselves staring down the twin barrels of biodiversity meltdown and climate chaos.

Species by species, landscape by landscape, FFI and our partners continue to defy the odds. But the wider global context in which we are operating will ultimately dictate whether these efforts succeed in the long term. Humanity itself is on the brink. We need decision-makers at all levels to unite behind a vision that puts planet above profit, and to seize this opportunity to repair the damage inflicted on the natural world.

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