In a world with 16,306 endangered plant and animal species facing the threat of extinction, here’s a bit of good news: two animal species which had been declared extinct have recently been seen in our realm again.
The first is the famous giant tortoise of the Galapagos Islands. This small archipelago off the coast of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean was home to giant tortoises until whaling and pirate ships brought rats to the islands in the 1800s. The rats devoured tortoise eggs and hatchlings for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the tortoises faced further threats from humans who hunted them over the centuries for their oil and meat. By the early 1900s, the giant tortoise and subspecies were declared extinct in the wild.
Conservationists made efforts to breed the giant tortoises in captivity, so the species held onto existence by that very fine thread, but the only way they could enjoy a sustainable future was for them to be able to live and reproduce naturally in the wild, free from the threat of the rat population, which by 2012 had ballooned to an estimated 180 million rats on the island of Pinzon alone.
Fed up, the Galapagos National Park and its collaborators created an operation to eradicate the rat population on Pinzon. Using 20,000 kg of rat poison which was designed to target only rats and repel birds and other animals, the operation seems to have worked. The island was declared to be rat-free, and the following year, juvenile tortoises were re-introduced to the island by conservationists. The watched as the hatchlings took to their new surroundings and made themselves at home, knowing they represented the first surviving baby tortoises on the island in more than 100 years. By 2015, they were breeding and new eggs were hatching in the wild.
Additionally, in March 2019, another subspecies of the giant tortoise was found on the smaller Galapagos island of Fernandina. The last time this Fernandina tortoise had been seen was in 1906, and was long considered to be extinct. The found tortoise is estimated to be over 100 years old, and scientists also believe she is not the only one. Efforts were immediately underway to put her into a breeding program.
The second animal species to have returned from extinction is the Formosan Clouded Leopard in Taiwan. These beautiful cats had not been seen in the wild since 1983, after their habitat had been destroyed by the logging industry and the cats had been hunted for their prized pelts. Local tribal hunters admitted to having continued to hunt the animals into the 1990s, but Taiwanese and American scientists scouting from the years 2001 to 2013 were unable to find any remaining members of this species. In 2013, the leopard was declared extinct.
However, in February 2019, rangers in the village of Alangyi, where the leopard is held sacred, reported that they spotted the leopard running up a tree, darting past a scooter, and hunting goats. Although the sightings require investigation, they gave the village’s tribal leaders the traction needed to request the Forestry Bureau to halt logging and to prohibit hunters from coming into the area.
The return of both the Taiwanese Clouded Leopard and Galapagos Giant Tortoises are highly encouraging, and show that in a black and white world where extinction means a permanent end, life does indeed find a way. And with teams and leaders in place who act with respect for nature, we can work to restore the balance. It truly is an exciting time to be alive – especially if you’re a leopard or a tortoise!