Wildlife wins: 7 good-news stories from 2019

Stronger protections from trade, new vaquita offspring, and other wildlife crime success stories from the year.

Thursday, December 26, 2019,
By Rachel Fobar
This year it became much more difficult for African countries with wild elephants to send them ...

This year it became much more difficult for African countries with wild elephants to send them to zoos outside the continent.

Photograph by Beverly Joubert, Nat Geo Image Collection

Optimism can be in short supply when it comes to wildlife and conservation. This year alone, Masai giraffes were declared endangered, fires in the Amazon devastated jaguars, turtles, and other wildlife, and cheetah researchers accused of spying were sentenced to years in prison in Iran. Demand for wildlife and wildlife products—such as pet turtles, lion bone, and shatoosh, scarves made from the fleece of rare Tibetan antelopes—is thought to be on the rise. And alleged major poaching boss Bach “Boonchai” Mai, charged with smuggling rhino horns, was released after a key witness recanted.

But largely thanks to conservationists and animal advocates, there were success stories too, especially when it comes to protecting wildlife from crime and exploitation. Here are some ways wildlife benefited in 2019:

At the global conference on wildlife trade, more species received protections. Nine animals received protections from international trade, and more than 130 species won protections for the first time at this year’s meeting, in Geneva, of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the global agreement that regulates cross-border trade in wildlife. Giraffes and mako sharks, respectively listed as vulnerable and endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the global authority on the conservation status of species, were two animals given enhanced protection. Neither can be traded unless it can be shown that doing so wouldn’t threaten the survival of their populations in the wild. Whereas giving animals stronger protections signals that trade has hurt those species, it may encourage governments to do more to protect them. (Read more about what happens when countries don’t enforce CITES.)

Vaquita babies have been spotted off the coast of Mexico. Vaquitas, which are the smallest porpoises in the world, have fallen to the razor’s edge of extinction, with about 10 remaining individuals—but last month, scientists glimpsed mothers with calves in the Gulf of California. Vaquitas are collateral damage of the lucrative market for traditional medicine. Fishermen anchor gillnets to the ocean floor to catch fish called totoaba, whose valuable swim bladders are traded illegally to China to treat ailments such as arthritis. Vaquitas need to breathe air but get trapped in the nets and suffocate. “As long as there are some animals left, there’s hope,” Eva Hidalgo, science coordinator for the marine conservation group Sea Shepherd, told National Geographic earlier this year. “We need to do our best to make sure that they do have a chance of recovering, no matter how small that chance may be.

Chinese insurance will no longer cover pangolin scales. In August, the Chinese government announced that its insurance funds would no longer cover traditional medicine containing pangolin scales, used to treat ailments from difficulty with lactation to poor circulation. All eight species of the scaly, anteater-like mammals are threatened with extinction. Their scales are used in more than 60 commercially produced curatives, according to the nonprofit China Biodiversity and Green Development Foundation. The National Medical Insurance and the Human Resource and Social Security Bureau also announced that products derived from hawksbill sea turtles, sea horses, coral, saiga antelope antlers, among others, would no longer be covered either. Daisy He, a Beijing-based lawyer with the international firm CMS, told National Geographic in an email, “The Chinese government and the Chinese public have noticed the importance of protecting these animals.” (Read more about pangolins, one of the world's most trafficked mammals.)

Chinese health insurance will no longer cover traditional medicine containing the scales of pangolins, which are threatened with extinction.
Photograph by Brent Stirton, National Geographic

African elephants can only rarely be caught and sent to faraway zoos. Thanks to a new CITES resolution, elephants from Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa can be exported only to other African countries where elephants live or used to live, unless it can be shown that sending them elsewhere would result in a conservation benefit for the species. This stops the controversial practice of selling wild-caught elephants to zoos around the world. Research has shown that elephants are highly intelligent, social creatures that create lifelong bonds with other animals. They mourn their dead and are capable of empathy, among other things. “It’s a huge victory for animal welfare that the abduction of baby elephants from their families to be held in zoos has been banned,” Frank Pope, CEO of the Nairobi-based nonprofit Save the Elephants told National Geographic at the time of the decision.

International officials cracked down on wildlife crime. Global enforcement bodies—including Interpol, Europol, and the World Customs Organization—conducted Operation Thunderball, the widest-ranging wildlife crime sting ever, and Operation Blizzard, the largest reptile trade bust to date. Thunderball involved 109 countries and nearly 2,000 seizures of protected wildlife. It sought to reveal crime hot spots and prevent wildlife crime, with the ultimate goal of “dismantling of criminal networks,” said Roux Raath, the World Customs Organization’s environment program manager. Blizzard, which identified small-scale illegal traders, resulted in 12 arrests and more than 4,000 seizures of live reptiles. Sergio Tirro, a project manager for environmental crime with Europol, hopes law enforcement can elicit information from the dozen suspects to build cases against top traffickers. “Our focus is organized crime groups behind the illegal trade,” Tirro told National Geographic.

The Russian government released the final group of animals from the notorious “whale jail.” In 2018, four Russian companies that supply marine mammals to aquariums illegally caught nearly 100 beluga whales and orcas and held them in Srednyaya Bay, in Russia’s far east. With the onset of winter, the animals remained in holding pens as surface ice formed. Most were reported to have skin lesions, and they appeared to be suffering. Over the course of 2019, the animals were gradually freed, and in November, authorities transported the remaining 50 belugas to Uspeniya Bay, about 60 miles away. Although not their native habitat, the bay was considered the best option, given funding constraints.

After being captured and held for months in an icy “whale jail,” nearly a hundred whales and orcas were returned to the wild. Here, one of the orcas is lifted in a sling in preparation for transport to the release site in the Sea of Okhotsk.
Photograph by Yuri Smityuk, TASS/Getty

Technological developments help track animals and block the illegal wildlife trade. Technologists with the artificial intelligence company Synthetaic and National Geographic Labs, an initiative that helps harness technology for conservation, have developed a system that uses artificial intelligence and airplane-mounted cameras to identify and count animals in near-real time across huge distances. The researchers have already successfully scanned both Garamba National Park, in Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, in Kenya. And for the first time, scientists detailed using a handheld gene sequencing device called MinION to determine the species of shark fins in a fish market northwest of Mumbai. This gizmo can also can be used to identify ivory, pangolin scales, and other illegally traded wildlife products. “The MinION could be a game changer in that it can be used by wildlife officials locally,” Shaili Johri, a post-doctoral biology researcher at San Diego State University, told National Geographic in an email.

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.
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