Six species saved through ecosystem restoration

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Around the world, on land and in the oceans, collapsing populations of plants, animals and insects have raised fears that planet Earth is entering its sixth mass extinction, with catastrophic consequences for man and nature.

One million of the estimated 8 million species in the world are threatened with extinction. Ecosystem services essential to human well-being, including the provision of food and fresh water and protection against disasters and disease, are being eroded in many places.

But hope is not lost. Under the auspices of the United Nations Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, efforts are underway to revive degraded terrestrial and marine habitats, from mountains and mangroves to forests and farmlands.

In addition to providing essential benefits to people, restored ecosystems are a refuge for many threatened species. Here are six endangered mammals, reptiles and birds that are walking away from the brink of extinction with the help of restoration.

Saiga intensifies

A young saiga antelope in Kazakhstan. After a shocking mass mortality in 2015, saigas have experienced a baby boom in recent years. Photo: Unsplash/Dasha Urvachova

A goat-sized antelope with a comically large nose, the saiga once roamed the grasslands from Europe to China in their millions. But overhunting, loss of habitat and migration routes, and disease outbreaks have reduced them to remnant populations in Kazakhstan, Russia, and Mongolia.

Restoration efforts, including the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative in Kazakhstan, are protecting and revitalizing some 7.5 million hectares of steppe, semi-desert and desert and are already seeing results. Despite the mass mortality of 200,000 saiga in 2015, the Kazakh population has grown from less than 50,000 animals in 2006 to more than 1.3 million today.

Gorillas climbing

A gorilla in the tall grass
Thanks to increased conservation, restoration and animal health measures, gorilla numbers have doubled in the past 30 years. Photo: UNEP

Confined to two central African cloud forests, there are only around 1,000 mountain gorillas in the wild. However, this figure represents a steady increase since the 1980s and a reward for the consequent protection and restoration work which translates into tourism income for the authorities and the communities of the protected areas.

Half of the remaining gorillas inhabit the volcanic Virunga massif, whose tripartite protected area straddles the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Threats, including insecurity as well as climate change and disease, mean great apes remain endangered.

Restoration work in the area has included the rehabilitation of over 1,000 hectares in Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park with the removal of exotic trees so native forest species can return, and there are plans to restore many more in the area.

Jaguar more spotted

Jaguars playing at a reintroduction center in Argentina.
Jaguars playing at a reintroduction center in Argentina. Photo: Raphael Abuin

As the need to preserve the Amazon is gaining deserved attention, the focus is on restoring its lesser-known neighbor, the Atlantic Forest. Over 80% of the vast forest that stretched along the Brazilian coast and into Paraguay and Argentina has been lost to things like agriculture, logging and infrastructure.

Extensive restoration efforts are underway to counter the severe fragmentation of this biodiversity hotspot. They include regenerating forest on abandoned land and creating wildlife corridors between protected areas, strategies that help preserve predators like near-threatened jaguars and margays.

The world’s southernmost population of jaguars roam the Upper Paraná region of the Atlantic Forest, straddling the borders of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. Here, reducing deforestation and restoring thousands of hectares of former forest land has helped the jaguar population increase by around 160% since 2005.

Graze the dugongs

A dugong eating.
The dugong feeds on a seagrass bed, the main source of nutrition for the animal. Photo: Unsplash/Ray Aucott

Restoring ecosystems is just as important in water as it is on land. In the ocean, vital habitats that have been destroyed and degraded include seagrass beds, which are essential for marine species including the dugong as well as the fish that support coastal communities around the world.

The dolphin-like dugongs, whose gentle expression and fondness for shallow waters may be the source of old mermaid tales, have disappeared from much of their once vast range due to the hunting, entanglement in fishing gear and loss of the seagrass on which they feed.

But restoring and protecting the last strongholds – which include Australia, Mozambique and the Persian Gulf – offers hope that the ocean’s only herbivorous mammal can avoid extinction. In the United Arab Emirates, for example, Abu Dhabi plans to restore an additional 12,000 hectares of mangroves, coral reefs and seagrass beds on top of the 7,500 hectares already rehabilitated.

Accelerate runners

A female Antiguan Lesser Runner Snake
The Antiguan Racer, once the world’s rarest snake, has made an incredible comeback. Photo: Wikimedia/Antiguan Racer

Animals and plants unique to islands and archipelagos are particularly vulnerable to extinction, such as the giant wingless moas of New Zealand or the black flying fox of Mauritius and Reunion. But the islands are also fertile ground for the ecological restoration of endangered species.

The Antiguan racer is a harmless snake endemic to the twin nation of Antigua and Barbuda. Non-native mongooses introduced in the 1890s to control rats feasted on the snakes and their lizard prey, so that by 1995 only about 50 runners survived on a single offshore islet.

Restoration efforts have since rid several islands of invasive predators, returning their ecosystems to a natural state, and runners now number more than 1,100 individuals across four sites. Bird colonies on the islands have also made dramatic recoveries through the removal of predators.

Soaring bitterns

A bird in the tall grass
The iconic bittern, camouflaged in its wet habitat. Photo: Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB)

In the UK, the restoration of natural processes in degraded wetlands and in former industrial landscapes has revived an iconic waterbird while providing opportunities for rest and recreation for people in nearby urban centres.

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