Can conservation translocations turn desperation to inspiration?

Conservation translocations can be necessary to save species on the brink of extinction but, despite notable successes, many view them as too risky. If best practice is followed, however, translocations help restore ecosystems and have the power to inspire those who have lost hope for the natural world, writes Dr Axel Moehrenschlager of the Calgary Zoological Society, an IUCN Member organisation.

Pekania pennanti

I had my first dream job at 22. After peering over a cliff edge, I lowered myself down gingerly towards the nest of the fastest animal on Earth. Hanging by a rope while a pair of peregrine falcons dive-bomb past your head is certainly invigorating! Happily, I found two eggs on the rocky outcrop below. Our Parks Canada team returned three weeks later to add two captive-bred chicks to the wild-born ones, and all four were raised by the parents.

These efforts don’t go on anymore because they succeeded. The restriction of DDT use, and conservation translocation programmes contributed to peregrine falcon numbers increasing by 2,600% across North America in just 40 years according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened SpeciesTM. Globally the species is now listed as Least Concern with a ‘stable population’.

Conservation translocations move species among wild populations or from human care into the wild for conservation purposes. It sounds easy, but it rarely is. The fact that populations may need to be reinforced or, if extirpated, reintroduced means that the conditions have been sufficiently poor to trigger vast population declines. Sometimes the drivers of those declines are easy to discern, but often they are not. This is especially challenging when populations collapsed many decades ago. As human impacts change almost all ecosystems, assessing their current or future suitability to support threatened species is a difficult task. Solid science, sound planning, and adaptive management over time are essential.

My favourite conservation translocations are those that never need to occur.

I see the limitation of threats such as habitat loss, invasive species, disease or poaching as primary strategies to prevent extinction. Indeed, I often say that my favourite conservation translocations are those that never need to occur. Unfortunately, however, it is increasingly common that such threat limitation alone is insufficient to recover species, their precious ecological functions, and associated ecosystem services.



Vancouver Island marmot


Less than 20 years ago there were only 33 of Canada’s endemic Vancouver Island marmots (Marmota vancouverensis) in the wild but reintroductions have now increased their population eight-fold.

Photo: © Oli Gardner



Preventing the extinction of species like the Arabian oryx, bison in North America, golden lion tamarin in Brazil, and kakapo in New Zealand are iconic early examples of conservation translocations. Scientific publications indicate exponential growth that has led to a thirty-fold increase in such initiatives over the last 30 years, and recent analyses suggest such trends will continue. Publications, which actually underestimate the extent of conservation translocations dramatically, also show that translocations already involve over 2,000 species across all continents and oceans. These are not just for birds and mammals anymore; far from it.

Today the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) Conservation Translocation Specialist Group, that I am proud to chair, adds to six previous editions with the launch of the 2021 Global Conservation Translocation Perspectives.  This showcases conservation translocations for 78 species from 26 countries with a failure rate for stated objectives of only 4%. For the first time the majority are plants, ranging from the white saksaul of the United Arab Emirates, to the red horntail orchid of Singapore. Conservation translocations now span all threatened taxa, even including at least 106 marine invertebrate species and 112 terrestrial arthropod species.

Often conservation translocations are called upon as a last resort, sometimes when only a few individuals survive.

I can’t prove why conservation translocations have increased so dramatically, but I suspect it is driven by two seemingly opposed forces: ‘desperation’ and ‘confidence’. Desperation of course comes from the fact that more and more species are pushed to the brink of local, regional, or global extinction. Often conservation translocations are called upon as a last resort, sometimes when only a few individuals survive. Less than 20 years ago there were only 33 of Canada’s endemic Vancouver Island marmots in the wild, for example. Through the hard work of many dedicated people and agencies, reintroductions have now increased their population eight-fold.

This is where ‘confidence’ comes in. Early evaluations of reintroductions suggested that they often fail, and of course failures still occur. Risks can be numerous and uncertainties daunting throughout the conservation translocation process. But increasingly evidence shows that if best practice is followed in terms of planning, stakeholder engagement, science, and action, tremendous gains can be made. In 2016 our review of North American animal conservation translocations involving 279 species, showed that 64% were successful and 26% partially successful in achieving programme objectives. A 2010 global vertebrate assessment illustrated that conservation translocations were major contributors to improvements in the Red List status of many birds, mammals, and amphibians. Recently a 2020 study found that reintroductions had again helped prevent numerous extinctions. 



Red horntail orchid


The Red horntail orchid (Bulbophyllum maxillare) is one of 33 native orchid species reintroduced across Singapore.

Photo: © Tim Wing Yam




Despite such successes, I believe the true potential for conservation translocations remains largely untapped. I was always inspired by Aichi Target 12 that “the extinction of known threatened species has been prevented and their conservation status, particularly of those most in decline, has been improved and sustained”.  Alongside many IUCN Members, I sincerely hope that the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework will be as aligned to species recovery, especially as we enter the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.

We aim to amplify responsible conservation translocations to benefit species and ecosystems worldwide, and I ask all IUCN Members for their support.

Photo: The red horntail orchid (Bulbophyllum maxillare) is one of 33 native orchid species reintroduced across Singapore. © Tim Wing Yam

 

As we look to the future, the IUCN Conservation Translocation Specialist Group will shortly publish a new ten-year plan. Building upon the concepts and applications of the IUCN Guidelines for Reintroductions and Other Conservation Translocations, available in nine languages, we will launch the most ambitious agenda in our group’s 33-year history. We aim to amplify responsible conservation translocations to benefit species and ecosystems worldwide, and I ask all IUCN Members for their support.

When I write of ambition, I am not just referring to the prevention of extinctions. Slowing biodiversity declines is crucial, but I believe we need to set the bar even higher. We need to save, to repair, and to recover. Most of all, we need to restore.



Jamaican iguana hatchlings


Scientists thought the Jamaican iguana (Cyclura collie) was extinct until it was rediscovered in 1990. Reintroduced juveniles, raised in captivity, have since boosted their numbers.

Photo: © Stesha Pasachnik



Anyone, from governments to communities and individuals, can be involved in the planting or release of threatened species back to the wild. That simple act is tremendously powerful. I have witnessed tears in the eyes of children and adults deeply moved by the opportunity to make such a difference. Herein lies perhaps the greatest potential for conservation translocations. They inspire even those people that are otherwise disillusioned by the doomsday scenarios of planetary collapse. Conservation translocations are about action. They are about trying to right past wrongs. They are about preventing loss and enabling recovery. They show that conservation works.

For all these reasons, conservation translocations are ultimately about the most precious and powerful motivation of all: hope.

Topic: 
Biodiversity
Forests
Oceans
Protected areas
Author: 

Dr Axel Moehrenschlager leads community conservation and conservation translocation programmes as Director of Conservation and Science at the Calgary Zoological Society, an IUCN Member organisation. Dr Moehrenschlager is Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) Conservation Translocation Specialist Group, Adjunct Professor at the University of Calgary, and Research Associate at Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit where he received his PhD. Dr Moehrenschlager also serves on the Technical Advisory Committee of the UN Equator Prize, and as Trustee of the St Andrews Prize for the Environment.

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