Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Back from the brink: endangered species successes

Human interaction with endangered species isn't always a death sentence for the animals. With careful coaxing and vigilance, some species have been brought back from the edge of extinction to thrive once again.

KNOWN LOCALLY AS 'AL MAHA', the Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx) is a regal-looking beast that features in Arabic poetry and paintings. Once common, this large antelope has wide hooves that allow it to move across shifting sands, and the reputed ability to smell water from many kilometres away. During the 20th century, hunting took a heavy toll and when the last wild individual was shot in 1972, the species was declared 'extinct in the wild'.

That could have been the final chapter of the oryx's story, but the species was of symbolic significance to many in the Arabian peninsula. A few animals, caught as wild numbers dwindled, were brought together with oryxes from royal collections in Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Successful breeding programs saw the captive herd grow. In Oman in 1982, the first oryx were reintroduced to their traditional lands.

In June 2011 the International Conservation Union, IUCN, announced that the number of wild oryx had hit the 1,000 mark and that the species was well on the way to recovery. It has been reclassified from 'endangered' to 'vulnerable' - the biggest success ever for an animal that was once classified as 'extinct in the wild'.

"To have brought the Arabian oryx back from the brink of extinction is a major feat and a true conservation success story," said Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, director general of the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi. "One which we hope will be repeated many times over for other threatened species."

Captive breeding programs have had notable successes in many parts of the world. In the US a private captive breeding program brought another large, iconic beast, the American bison (Bison bison), back from the edge of extinction in the late 1800s. Today around 30,000 live in the wild, while another 30,000 are found on commercial ranching operations.

In Australia the helmeted honeyeater (Lichenostomus melanops), a beautiful yellow and black creature that is the bird emblem of Victoria, dwindled to as few as 50 individuals in 1990. A captive breeding program at the Healesville Sanctuary has seen this bird saved from going over the brink. Although it only numbers 80 even now, the 20 or so birds released each year are keeping this species alive, and volunteers are working around the clock to help this number climb.

Read on...

By John Pickrell
ABC Environment

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