The idea of conserving wild spaces and the creatures that dwell within them has been in the public consciousness since the early 20th century, when, through greater awareness at a grassroots level, science went mainstream. As more people became aware of the damage being wrought on the natural environment through industrialisation, and societies like Audubon and the RSPB were founded on both sides of the Atlantic, the desire to set things right had never been stronger.
In 1903 one of the world’s longest conservation programmes was launched, and today there are more new initiatives to help birds and other animals than ever before. The growth in the number of projects can be argued to exist because there are even greater numbers of species needing our help since conservation began, but they should still be applauded. Many schemes achieve turning point milestones and make good progress every day. Today we shine a light on just some of those that are out there.
Let's go fly a kite
After more than 300 years of direct persecution, the iconic red kite is back in the UK in more healthy numbers than has been seen in a century. Once valued as an asset to the island nation, these beautiful birds with their distinctive forked tails helped keep the streets clean in Elizabethan London, feeding on carrion and other carcasses discarded by the human population with no thought as to what happened next.
But as private land ownership grew and the Industrial Revolution gathered pace, these efficient predators became viewed as vermin due to their habit of killing prized livestock. Gamekeepers were hired to dispatch them in their thousands with poison and traps and regular hunting parties took place in the name of sport to shoot as many down as possible.
As red kites became scarce, that other human obsession, collecting, came into the ring and eggs were poached wholesale from nests: these unborn offspring vital to the species’ survival became lifeless paperweights on mahogany writing desks, ornaments on mantelpieces, “protected” by glass jars in museums only to be peered at by eyes that didn’t deserve to see them. By the turn of the 19th century, there were only a handful of kites left, clinging on to life in a few Welsh valleys, and declared extinct in England and Scotland.
Prompted by a letter written by Professor J. H. Salter, of Aberystwyth, Wales, which was read at a meeting of the British Ornithologists' Club in 1903, a handful of similarly appalled individuals got together and formed the first “Kite Committee”, dedicating to raising awareness of what was happening to this beautiful aeronaut. In 1922, the now well-established RSPB joined in, providing funds and greater networking resources.
Successive committees had mixed results with small sites – although now illegal, landowners still poisoned birds and destroyed nests and laws were rarely enforced whilst money talked. Over the next 70 years numbers peaked and troughed along a very thin baseline with fewer than 26 breeding pairs at the height of efforts by 1972. Being so precariously close to extinction, adverse weather and disease was having a devastating effect.
However, the humans persevered, and in 1989 there was a breakthrough – the IUCN had approved a much larger introductory scheme, and adult birds were brought in from Sweden and Spain to help establish a few secret colonies in different parts of the UK. In 1994, juvenile kites reared in the wild by these introduced birds reared their own young for the first time. In the thirty years since, there are now more than 2,000 breeding pairs of red kites in the UK today, making efforts to conserve them the oldest and most successful achievements in the world.
Ten thousand kilometers away in the South Pacific, the Galapagos Islands were made famous by Charles Darwin in his ground-breaking work On the Origin of Species. Darwin’s observations on the development of the archipelago’s finches demonstrated his theories about adaptation depending on distinct and different habitats, and he determined there were 15 different species of finch endemic to the islands. Today, there are 13 species left, having experienced disease, weather events, a devastating drought in 1977, leading to lack of food resources, and – the very worst of issues to befall them – the introduction of invasive species, in this case, rats.
But over the last ten years, conservationists from the Galapagos Conservation Trust have come through the other side of a complex and expensive eradication programme meaning some of the islands are now rodent free. Finches such as the Common Cactus Finch, so-named because it used to be found in great numbers, was until recently declared extinct, but has begun the earnest process of repopulating the dunes and rocky shores now that the rats are gone. There will always be divided opinion on the culling of one species to save another, but there is much of great value to be said against allowing a species that was never there in the first place to completely remove another species from the world entirely.
The end crowns the work
To finish, we look west and head to the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean. This archipelagic state comprises 115 islands, several of which were home to the small passerine eponymous warbler. Human disturbance in the 20th century reduced the range and population of this greenish-brown songbird from around 20,000 individuals to just 30 in 1968, hanging on to existence by their tiny toes on one tiny island named Cousin, just 0.3km2 wide.
Properly managed conservation programmes organized by the Seychelles Warbler Project have seen a phenomenal rise in numbers since intensive monitoring began in 1986. In 1997, the Cousin population had increased more than ten-fold, with 323 individuals, and soon sightings were made on nearby islands. There are now over 3,000 individuals spread across five islands, making this effort an outstanding success.
However bleak things look when we turn on the news, just remember there are people working tirelessly to save the world in one way or another. That doesn’t mean we should be complacent in our own lives of course – even if you can’t actively join in, you can always show your support by donating to worthwhile causes, no matter how small - and every conservation project starts small. Remember, too, that one of the best ways to ensure meaningful change that lasts is through legislation; when electing others to act on your behalf, make sure their values align with conservation and progress towards a less destructive, more biodiverse world.