These Endangered Species Were Brought Back From Extinction in the Wild
According to the 2019 IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, up to 1 million plant and animal species are currently threatened with extinction. Despite that bleak statistic, scientists and conservationists are proving that, with a little help, some species are resilient enough to bounce back from even the brink of extinction. And thanks to reintroduction programs that use a combination of captive breeding, translocation and genetic engineering — some already have. Even better, reintroducing native species has been shown to help restore degraded ecosystems and increase biodiversity, which benefits all of us. The following species were once thought to have disappeared from the wild, until they were brought back from extinction by science and conservation efforts.
Did you know that North America has its very own native ferret species? There was a time when black-footed ferrets numbered in the tens of thousands — until the 1970s, when the combination of sylvatic plague and an ill-advised government-sponsored poisoning against prairie dogs (a staple in the ferret’s diet) led to their supposed extinction in the wild. Then in 1981, a Wyoming ranch dog by the name of Shep brought home a strange animal that a local taxidermist identified as a black-footed ferret. When they notified the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, they discovered a hidden colony of about 100 ferrets living in secret near the ranch. Researchers were able to capture enough wild ferrets for a captive breeding and reintroduction program that still continues today.
Lord Howe Island Stick Insect
Known affectionately as “tree lobsters,” the Lord Howe Island stick insect can measure up to 6 inches long. While they were once numerous on Lord Howe Island off the coast of Australia, the species disappeared after ships accidentally introduced rats to the area in the early 1900s. That all changed in 2017, when a small colony was discovered on a volcanic sea stack about 12 miles away. Although they had evolved a few different physical traits than the insects who’d lived on Lord Howe Island, scientists confirmed that they were indeed the same species, opening the door for a successful reintroduction project in their original range.
The story of red wolves in North America is one of highs and lows. After reaching near-extinction levels in the 1980s due to rampant hunting and human expansion, researchers captured 14 of the 17 wolves left in the wild in a last-ditch effort to save the species. By 1987, four pairs of red wolves were reintroduced into a North Carolina national wildlife refuge as part of a captive breeding program — and by 2012, the wild population had risen to 120 individuals. In 2021, however, the population plummeted back down to an estimated 17-20 (potentially connected to a temporary rule allowing hunters in North Carolina to kill coyotes, who share a habitat with wolves). The breeding program continues to care for over 200 wolves held in captivity today, and in April 2022, conservationists were thrilled to discover the first litter of red wolf pups born in the wild in over four years.
Southern White Rhino
In perhaps one of the most successful wildlife conservation stories in history, the Southern white rhino — one of two subspecies of white rhino — was brought back from less than 50 individuals in the early 1900s to between 17,000 and 18,000 today thanks to efforts led by the South African government and dedicated conservationists. The Northern white rhino, the other subspecies, has unfortunately not been so lucky. With only two females left (living peacefully in a Kenyan wildlife preserve), scientific groups are working to create new embryos with preserved genetic material that can be transplanted into southern white rhino females to help save the northern subspecies.
Ka Palupalu o Kanaloa
Historically found on the rocky cliffs of the Hawaiian islands, the Ka Palupalu o Kanaloa shrub was declared extinct in the wild in 2015. Just before that, two lone plants were discovered growing on a sea stack off the coast of Kahoʻolawe, which experts at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa collected in hopes of cultivating more plants. The plan worked, and they were able to germinate and grow new seedlings from the remaining seeds to produce 23 new shrubs. In 2021, the Endangered Species Coalition named the Ka Palupalu o Kanaloa one of the 10 most critically endangered plants in the world to be impacted from climate change.
The world’s last surviving subspecies of wild horse (its ancestors were never domesticated) was numerous along the Mongolia-China border when first described by Russian explorer N. M. Przewalski in the late 19th century. Since then, Przewalski’s horses were driven to extinction in the wild from losses of habitat, genetic diversity and water sources. More recently, the few horses still held in captivity were bred and reintroduced into parts of Mongolia, which successfully sustained enough wild populations for the International Union for Conservation of Nature to move them from “extinct in the wild” to “critically endangered” in 2008.
Having already withstood everything from the dinosaur age to the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, ginkgo trees are nothing if not survivors. Fossils found in North Dakota can tell us that the species existed in its current form 60 million years ago, but its close ancestors actually lived 170 million years back amongst the Jurassic Period. The species’ natural range eventually dwindled down to a small area and was believed to be all but extinct in the wild until two populations were discovered in eastern China, though scientists debated as to whether or not they were actually wild or originally planted by Chinese monks. Either way, these colorful trees continue to be cultivated today in cities around the world for both ornamental and medicinal purposes.