2021 may have been the year we saw the first inclinations that longtime wildlife conservation and protection efforts were really paying off: for turtles, rhinos, tigers, pandas, bald eagles, and more.
Our history of deforestation, overproduction, overconsumption, and overdevelopment has been catching up to us — and it's had a devastating impact on critical biodiversity and wildlife populations.
Listening more to the voices of Indigenous populations globally, seeing the impact on the planet, and more has led to some incredible large- and small-scale changes that are helping animals.
Rewilding projects re-introduced species of animals, like bison to their native habitats. Volunteers are cutting down fences so wildlife can move freely in the plains of Wyoming. Millions of square miles of land and sea were added to protected areas, and forests were given the chance to regrow around the world.
And in science, the first drug developed without animal testing was submitted for FDA approval — a long time coming, and a promising milestone for a future without animal testing.
We still have so, so far to go in healing the planet, ecosystems, and habitats — and we're hopeful that as we celebrate these stories of progress, it will only inspire us all to keep that good work going, and keep animals in mind as we go about our lives.
36 endangered giant tortoises were released into the wild on one of the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos National Park announced that 36 endangered giant tortoises, born and raised in captivity, were released into the wild on San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos islands.
Each of the tortoises is 6 to 8 years old, and weigh between 6 and 11 pounds. They can live to the age of about 100 to 150 years old, be up to 4 feed long and weigh up to 700 pounds. They were monitored and tested for disease before being released.
Though giant tortoises are still considered endangered (they're listed as a "vulnerable" extinction risk), thanks to conservation efforts, their numbers have been on the rise.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, San Cristobal Giant Tortoise population experienced "catastrophic decline" — from about 24,000 historically to about 500-700 in the early 1970s.
The decline was due to the introduction of predators, competitors, and vegetation change.
By 2016, the numbers were showing signs of recovery to about 6,700. In the past 8 years, 75 total giant tortoises have been re-introduced to the wild on the island.
Nepal’s rhino population is at its highest in over 20 years, due in part to a pause on tourism allowing habitats to regenerate
Good news for wildlife conservation! Thanks in part to the pandemic pausing tourism and allowing their habitats to regenerate, Nepal's one-horned rhino population has grown to its highest number in more than 20 years.
According to Nepal's Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC), since the year 2000, no official count has found more than 650 rhinos.
In their latest count, the population of rhinos across four national parks in Nepal increased to 752 total, up by more than 100 from 645 animals in 2015.
DNPWC Information Officer Haribhadra Acharya told CNN that in addition to a drop in tourism not disturbing their habitats, the rise in population as also due to investment in habitat management, controlling poaching, and translocation of rhinos between habitats.
With fewer than 2,200 remaining, the greater one-horned rhino is listed as a vulnerable species in the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List. They are still found in India and Nepal, but are extinct in Bangladesh and Bhutan.
While the pandemic's impact on tourism has aided wildlife conservation efforts, it's also negatively impacted funding for those same efforts. Nepal's rhino population going up in the midst of those circumstances is really good news!
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In Chicago, a former dumping ground for industrial and metal refining waste is now a 154-acre wildlife habitat
A former dumping ground in the Chicago area is now a 154-acre wildlife habitat.
The area at Indian River Marsh used to be used for dumping industrial waste and "slag" — the waste matter that is separated during the metal refining process, and contains toxic heavy metals such as lead, manganese, cyanide, and arsenic.
In the last decade, 480 tons of garbage were removed, the area was reestablished as a wetland, and native plants and animals are beginning to thrive. The marsh also absorbs rainwater, mitigating the spread of contaminants into people’s homes and water systems.
The combination is especially good news, as the surrounding area has a complex history of environmental racism.
The communities in the area are predominantly Black and Latino, and see some of the worst pollution in the entire state, according to reporting from BELT Magazine. (Learn about combatting environmental racism.)
Wetlands can help reduce these communities' exposure to flooding, poor air quality, higher temperatures, and more.
Denver gave 14 bison to Indigenous communities to reintroduce the animals to their historical habitats
Denver Parks and Recreation gave 14 bison to Indigenous communities in April to help reintroduce the animals to their native habitat.
Thirteen are headed to the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes in Oklahoma, and one to Tall Bull Memorial Council in Colorado.
The donation is part of the City and County’s efforts to return the animals to their native homes and support conservation efforts on native land.
When Europeans arrived in North America, colonizers forcefully removed Indigenous communities from their land with deadly force. This move is one small act in conserving remaining Indigenous land and animals.
Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes governor, Reggie Wassana, said this donation is the result of a long history and relationship with the state.
“The tribes plan to use the donated bison as a cultural, conservation, and educational resource, with the goal of locating the bison on our own tribal natural plains habitat,” Wassana told the Denver Channel.
Instead of hosting its annual bison auction, Denver Parks and Recreation will work with its Indigenous partners to “select tribes across the country that will accept the bison to build and enhance conservation herds on tribal lands,” the city told the Denver Channel.
Herds of bison — which numbered more than 30 million individual animals on the continent at one point — were almost completely wiped out by European colonizers.
By the turn of the 20th century, fewer than 1,000 bison existed on the continent, according to the city. Today, about 31,000 free-range wild bison live in North America.
After decades of conservation efforts, China announced giant pandas are no longer endangered
Good news for wildlife conservation! After decades of conservation efforts, China just announced it was removing giant pandas from its endangered species list.
Since the 1970s, China has ramped up its efforts to expand the panda's natural habitat, and it resulted in the giant panda population growing to 1,800 in the wild.
This lead the country to re-classify the species as "vulnerable," according to the Department of Natural Ecological Protection of the Ministry of Ecology and Environment.
China's announcement comes 5 years after the International Union for Conservation of Nature took giant pandas off the endangered species list.
According to reporting from The Guardian, experts in China were nervous to do the same at the time, worrying it would cause complacency.
China plans to keep its conservation efforts going — both for giant pandas and other species that have seen population growth in recent years, like Siberian tigers and Asian elephants.
The first drug developed without animal testing was submitted for FDA approval
Life-saving drugs continue to be developed every year, but to reach the market they are subjected to rigorous safety testing to ensure they pose no risk to humans. Currently, it's most common to test drugs on animals, such as mice, rabbits, or primates.
Researchers from Hebrew University of Jerusalem believe it’s possible to test drugs without animals — and they’ve already demonstrated it by producing a promising cancer therapy without testing on a single animal.
Using a chip with human tissue on it, the researchers believe they can demonstrate safety and efficacy while bypassing the traditional animal testing stage and have now submitted their new drug to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approval. Their results were published in the journal Science Translational Medicine in February.
As the first drug to go through to approval without animal testing, if successful, this study could be a breakthrough in reducing the number of animals used in labs.
With various technologies that simulate drug interactions available recently — including organoids, computer simulations, and more — the future of animal-free drug testing could be closer than we think.
“Getting a drug to the point of clinical trials normally takes four to six years, hundreds of animals, and costs millions of dollars,” lead author Yaakov Nahmias told The Times of Israel. “We’ve done it in eight months, without a single animal, and at a fraction of the cost.”
Life-saving medicines are extremely important for the health and well-being of so many people — we're thrilled about this news that we're a step closer to the health and well-being of animals being protected, too!
For the first time in history, an entire herd of elephants from a zoo will be released into the wild
An entire herd of elephants currently living in a British zoo will be released into the wild, and according to conservationists, it's the first time history that's happened.
According to a press release from the animal conservation group Aspinall Foundation, the 13 elephants (including 3 calves!) live at Howletts Wild Animal Park in Kent, southern England, and will be flown to be "rewilded" in Kenya.
Twelve of the elephants were born and raised in Kent, and one was born in Israel — none have ever lived in the wild.
"As with any conservation project of this magnitude, there are obviously big risks, but we consider them well worth it to get these magnificent elephants back into the wild where they belong," Damian Aspinall, chairman of the Aspinall Foundation, said in the press release.
While rewilding elephants is "uncharted territory," the group plans to apply what they've learned doing the same for other species, working with organizations like the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, who have decades of experience working with elephants.
"Since the 1970s, we have been helping elephants, providing a wild future to more than 260 rescued orphans and operating extensive protection projects to ensure they, their wildborn babies and their wild kin are best protected throughout their lives," Angela Sheldrick, CEO of the Trust, said in the press release.
We're celebrating the work of these conservationists to help this herd of elephants live in their, natural, wild habitats.
In a positive move for both climate and biodiversity, full protections were just restored for Alaska’s Tongass National Forest
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it would restore full protections for the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. Previously, about half of the forest had been reopened to logging and mining.
The forest significant because of its biodiversity and because of its climate protections. It's home to more than 400 species of wildlife — like fish and shellfish, nesting bald eagles, moose, and the world's largest concentration of black bears. And according to Audubon, over 40% of North American birds.
It also has incredible plant diversity, including red and yellow cedar, Western hemlock, and Sitka spruce trees that are at least 800 years old.
It also plays a significant role in protecting the climate. According to Audubon’s Natural Climate Solutions Report, the Tongass National Forest holds 44% of all the carbon stored in the U.S. National Forest system.
In the announcement, the USDA said it would restore the full protections to return “stability and certainty” to the forest.
This is really good news for protecting not only the plants and animals that call the Tongass home, but also of our greatest, natural assets in the fight against climate change: forests.
Volunteers in Wyoming have started taking down miles of fencing to help wildlife migrate or move around safely
Scientists conservatively estimate that more than 600,000 miles of fences crisscross the American West, and that’s without counting property fencing in cities and suburbs.
In just one Wyoming county, researchers mapped roughly 4,500 miles of fences — longer than the U.S. border with Mexico.
In some cases, the fences are simply remnants, erected decades ago and no longer serving any purpose. In others, they were constructed with little thought about their impact on other species.
But land managers and conservation groups in the United States are increasingly aware of how fences can harm wild animals, and they are beginning to push for fence removal or replacement as a solution that many otherwise-at-odds constituents can get behind.
“From a human perspective, fences are for managing land and livestock, and they are barely visible from afar,” graduate student Wenjing Xu told National Geographic. “For animals that need to roam, however, every ‘invisible’ fence line could be an actual barrier that they have to figure out how to overcome.”