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The winners and losers from a decade of conservation efforts by FFI

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A critically endangered hawksbill turtle. Picture: Sarah Kelman
A critically endangered hawksbill turtle. Picture: Sarah Kelman

The ‘teenies’ decade had some success and setbacks for those working in conservation. For the animal world in particular, the 10 years were “punctuated by happiness and heartbreak”, says a spokesperson for Fauna & Flora International, which is based at the David Attenborough Building off Downing Street.

“We’ve worn out untold pairs of boots patrolling, and saved the lives of countless pangolins, tapirs, turtles, crocodiles, elephants, snakes, magnolias, mangroves, snails, baobabs, butterflies, geckos and gibbons – among far more species,” says the conservation charity.

Founded in 1903, FFI has been based at the David Attenborough Building since it opened in 2016. Sir David, as well as being a graduate of the University of Cambridge, is a vice-president of FFI and has links with many of the organisations based in the campus.

The charity works country by country. One of its successes in the last decade has been its decision to stick with South Sudan.

“At the start of the decade, the country of South Sudan didn’t even exist,” notes the organisation. “Within just two years of gaining independence in 2011, it had fallen into bloody civil war.

“Despite the raging conflict, we’ve maintained a presence in the country, protecting a unique forest corridor and the elephants, chimps and pangolins that depend on it. We’re bringing communities and government rangers together, relieving tension and reducing threats to wildlife in areas so wild we don’t even know what’s out there.”

Having coped through the previous, often difficult, 10 years, FFI is preparing for the challenges of the twenties.

“Have no doubt,” concludes the world’s best blueprint for a conservation charity, “there are going to be bigger challenges, harsher conditions and more disasters coming than we’ve ever faced before. So let’s get it done.”

So here’s ten animals FFI assisted 2010-20, illustrating their work and showcasing endangered creatures.

1. Last male northern white rhino dies

Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, now deceased
Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, now deceased

The tragedy means almost certain extinction for the species.

“Having flown four rhinos – the last of their kind – from captivity in Europe to the African savannah,” says Fauna & Flora International, “we dared to dream that the northern white rhino had a future. Hundreds of people put thousands of hours into snatching an unlikely conservation victory from the jaws of defeat.

“Those hopes have been dashed. Despite our best efforts, the elderly rhinos failed to breed. Now two are dead, and the last two survivors are female. Their chances of natural reproduction are as over as the decade. In this case, the conservation world simply did too little, too late.”

 2006: Year of the last sighting of wild northern white rhinos

 2020: Two females

2. Mountain gorillas not critically endangered

Mountain gorilla
Mountain gorilla

“It hasn’t all been bad news – far from it. What’s happened with mountain gorillas is enough to put a smile on anyone’s face,” says FFI. “They were once down to just a few hundred individuals, clinging on desperately in their shrinking forests.

“And for these remarkable creatures, we were able to act in time. It’s been a decade of success. They’ve had big win after big win, after big win. Today, they number more than 1,000, and their survival chances are improving with each passing year.”

FFI was supporting mountain gorilla conservation as early as 1971. More than a quarter of a century of hard work has resulted in a steady rise in the number of mountain gorillas from a few hundred in the 1970s to 1,000 today, a recovery aided by players of People’s Postcode Lottery.

 2010: 786

 2020: 1,063

3. Sumatran tigers make it through hell

A Sumatran tiger. Picture: Jeremy Holden, FFI
A Sumatran tiger. Picture: Jeremy Holden, FFI

“Meanwhile, Sumatra’s tigers have faced 10 years of clinging on. When the decade began, their situation seemed relatively stable thanks to the sterling work of our tiger protection teams. But a new crisis was just around the corner. A massive spike in demand for tiger parts led to a blitz of poaching that threatened to annihilate these big cats. But in Sumatra, we held the line.

“Throughout the decade we kept numbers stable – repelling wave after wave of poaching. The heroes in the field have weathered the latest storm and they’re incontestably stronger for it – entering the twenties as one of the most impressive conservation forces on the planet.”

Poaching remains one of the main threats to the Sumatran tiger. FFI is conserving tigers and other threatened wildlife such as clouded leopards and Asian elephants in three Sumatran landscapes – Aceh, Riau and Kerinci Seblat National Park. These forests contain more than 60 per cent of all wild Sumatran tigers.

 2010: 500 (estimated)

 2020: 400

4. Saiga antelopes survive mass die-off

A critically endangered wild male saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica, male) in morning steppe
A critically endangered wild male saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica, male) in morning steppe

More than 200,000 saiga suddenly died in 2015 from a bacterium that no medicine could cure. Entire herds vanished.

The saiga was already in trouble. The Central Asia-based species once numbered in millions.

The 95 per cent decline is one of the fastest recorded declines for a mammal. Human activities, including hunting for its horns (used in Chinese medicine) and meat, and habitat destruction are the cause. But there’s hope.

“In Kazakhstan, we’ve helped engineer a dramatic recovery,” says FFI. “In just two years, the saiga population has more than doubled. After a decade of total turbulence, and thanks to better protection from poachers, they are bouncing back with a vengeance.”

 1980: 1,200,000

 2020: 165,000

5. Grey wolf needs understanding

A grey wolf (Canis lupus)
A grey wolf (Canis lupus)

Listed as endangered in 1973, this apex predator has few enemies – except humans.

“Wolves have faced centuries of persecution by humans throughout their range, due to deep-rooted superstition and to their fearsome reputation – largely undeserved – as voracious killers of livestock and a danger to people. As a result, grey wolves are today restricted to just two-thirds of their original territory and are mainly confined to wilderness or remote areas,” says FFI. “Recent decades have witnessed the beginnings of a turnaround in the fortunes of the grey wolf, with some protective measures being put into place in its last remaining European strongholds.

“Conservation efforts are focusing on strengthening this protection and promoting peaceful coexistence between local people and wolf packs.”

Once the most widely distributed terrestrial mammal, these highly intelligent and social animals are still found across much of the northern hemisphere. Rewilding offers further survival hopes.

 1999: 150,000

 2020: 16,000

6. Climate change fears for hawksbill turtle (pictured top)

Hawksbill turtles can be found swimming throughout the tropical and subtropical waters of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. They are known as travellers and move long distances from their feeding sites to nesting grounds – nesting on beaches in at least 60 countries. Sadly, hawksbills are critically endangered as humans collect their eggs, kill them for their meat and shells, and they often get accidentally caught in fishing nets.

Only around 700 nesting eastern Pacific hawksbill females are estimated to remain in the wild, with 90 per cent of all known nesting activity occurring in Nicaragua and El Salvador. A growing concern is the possible effect of climate change on turtles. The sex of a turtle hatchling is determined by the temperature in the nest; the warmer the sand, the greater the proportion of female hatchlings, so consistently higher temperatures could lead to a shortage of male turtles. FFI works to protect six key sea turtle nesting sites in Nicaragua, including three hawksbill nesting sites.

 2010: Thought to be extinct

 2020: 100-140

7. Siamese crocodile is back from dead

Siamese crocling. Picture: Jeremy Holden/Fauna & Flora International
Siamese crocling. Picture: Jeremy Holden/Fauna & Flora International

The decline of the Siamese crocodile began with competition from rice farmers for its wetland habitat, but it was the explosion in commercial hunting and large-scale farming in the 1950s – to supply the international skin trade – that drove the species to the brink.

Since rediscovering the Siamese crocodile in the Cardamom Mountains, FFI has worked closely with the Cambodian government’s forestry department and local communities to safeguard the remaining wild crocodiles and their habitat. Some communities in the Cardamom Mountains consider Siamese crocodiles to be sacred and have protected them for generations. FFI is working with the indigenous Khmer Dauem to improve food security, their business acumen and their capacity to conserve their cultural heritage, including the reptiles that they revere.

Direct conservation measures include the establishment of community-led monitoring and anti-poaching activities at key breeding sites; advocacy of stricter controls over crocodile farming and trade; development of Cambodia’s first conservation breeding programme and, in 2012, the launch of a national reintroduction programme that has already witnessed the release of pure-bred Siamese crocodiles at suitable sites to reinforce the wild population.

 2000: Thought to be extinct, the species was rediscovered in Cambodia

 2020: 250

8. Growing risk for intelligent yellow-naped parrot

Yellow-naped parrot
Yellow-naped parrot

A native of Mexico and northern Central America, the yellow-naped parrot’s combination of intelligence and mimicry make it a valuable target for poachers. Rather than targeting the adults, they go for the more vulnerable eggs and chicks – which are then sold into the pet trade.

Seizing these birds from the wild and putting them in captivity is driving them into extinction. The level of predation by pet hunters is completely unsustainable. In some locations, up to 100 per cent of nests have been poached, with disastrous results for the local population. Even in the parrot’s main strongholds, numbers are thought to have halved in the past decade. Parasites could also be affecting the parrots’ health.

Habitat loss as a result of forest clearance for agricultural is exacerbating the crisis. The parrot’s Red List status has escalated from Least Concern (2004) to Endangered (2017). FFI and partners work to save the yellow-naped parrot by empowering local people.

 2010: 22,000 (estimated)

 2020: 10,000

9. Paper clip-sized gecko being poached to extinction by pet trade

Union Island gecko (Gonatodes daudini). Picture: Jeremy Holden FFI
Union Island gecko (Gonatodes daudini). Picture: Jeremy Holden FFI

“The survival of the Union Island gecko is hanging by a thread,” says FFI of the breath-takingly beautiful gecko, pictured below by FFI’s Jeremy Holden. “We urgently need to ban all international trade in this critically endangered species and protect its rapidly declining population from ruthless reptile poachers.” This for the pet trade.

The only known population of this vanishingly rare gecko is confined to a 50-hectare patch of forest on Union Island, a small Caribbean island belonging to St Vincent and the Grenadines. This single population is rapidly declining as a result of rampant poaching for the illegal pet trade.

Its minuscule size makes the Union Island gecko very vulnerable to desiccation, so it lives mainly in moist crevices or under logs and rocks to avoid drying out. Very little else is known about the behaviour and life history of this recently discovered lightweight lizard which was first described in 2005: a fully grown Union Island gecko measures just 3cm, roughly the size of a paperclip.

 2010: 38,000 (estimated)

 2020: 9,960

10. African elephant has a lot on its plate

African plains elephant
African plains elephant

The African elephant is the largest living terrestrial mammal and is found predominantly in eastern, southern and western Africa in a variety of habitats. The species is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

African elephants live in matriarchal social families consisting of closely related females and their calves. The largest recorded individual reached four metres at the shoulder and weighed 10 tonnes. Both males and females have tusks, which are actually extended upper incisor teeth.

Traditionally the major cause of the species’ decline has been poaching for ivory. While this still remains a threat, other issues caused by rapid human population growth have emerged including habitat loss, fragmentation and the development of agricultural land, which have all led to an increase in conflict between humans and elephants.

 2010: 500,000

 2020: 400,000

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