Overcoming the odds of extinction

Some species are defying the odds of extinction against a back-drop of wide scale eradications.

It is estimated that between 0.01% and 0.1% of species become extinct each year. If there are one hundred million different species, and the extinction percentage was at 0.01%, it would mean that ten thousand different species would become extinct per year. In reality, we do not know how many species we are loosing as we are unaware of how many species exist.

It is thought that one hundred thousand species are lost each year, with this value being one thousand times greater than natural rates due to human actions including deforestation, poaching and pollution. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Some species that were close to extinction are clawing their way back for second chances to survive.

Image: Bernard DUPONT

Image: Bernard DUPONT

Take the Sahara oryx. Come March, twenty-five of an expected five hundred individuals will be getting first class tickets back to their natural habitat of Chad from enclosures in Abu Dhabi. This isn’t the only example of a species with bright prospects having narrowly escaped extinction. Reintroduction aims to re-establish a species in an area which was once part of its historical range, but where it has become extinct. Breeding animals in captivity and reintroducing them into the wild is an on-going success.

Since 1998, the only remaining oryx have been those in captivity, mainly in the Middle East and North America after the last surviving oryx in Chad was shot dead by a hunter. The reintroduction programme of the oryx is managed by the Sahara Conservation Fund whose mission is to conserve wildlife, habitats and other natural resources of the Sahara and its bordering Sahelian grasslands. The fund holds an ideology that an ideal Sahara is well conserved, where ecological processes function naturally, with plants and animals existing in healthy numbers across their historical range.

Mike Hoffmann of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission says that after reintroduction species are “not out of the woods by any means, but their status is no longer critical”.

Image: Charlie Marshall

Image: Charlie Marshall

There are also rare species that were believed to be extinct. These so-called ‘Lazarus’ species are named after the biblical reference in which Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. Some Lazarus species include the black-footed ferret of the North American Great Plains, the Omura’s whale and the Coelacanth, who were thought to have become extinct at the same time as dinosaurs. However, when species thought to be extinct are spotted, they are typically found clinging on in inaccessible regions and will never regain their historically wide range in the wild.

The only non-human primate with blue eyes, the blue-eyed black lemur was considered a myth of taxonomic error. In 1985, it was found in a remote part of Madagascar; its population in the low thousands, which declined rapidly due to agriculture decimated forests. Twenty-three years later, the species was facing near-certain extinction. But just a few weeks ago, the blue-eye black lemur was removed from the IUCN’s (International Union for Conservation of Nature) list of the “World’s twenty-five primates most in peril”. Thanks to a programme in in Madagascar’s Sahamalaza-Iles Radama National Park that helps protect lemur populations from habitat loss and hunting for bushmeat, their total population has reached around 3000 individuals. Although the species is not yet safe from extinction, it is much safer than it was before.

These success stories are all well and good, but it’s important to remember they are the product of decades of intensive conservation work on ground that are set to continue.

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