The Search for Lost Species Is Uncovering Hope for Humanity

Conservation efforts are focused on rebalancing ecosystems so all species can thrive

On September 10, 2020, Tim Faulkner, an Australian conservationist, gathered a small team of wildlife rangers in a scrubby forest 120 miles north of Sydney. When he gave the signal, the rangers lined up in a semicircle. Each held a small, white barrel. Faulkner paused, then gave a quick nod.

One ranger lowered his barrel to the ground and lifted a panel on one end, revealing a creature the size of a large rat, with a shiny black coat and a face like a teddy bear. It poked its head out, sniffed the air, and, after some encouragement and a firm pat on the backside, slinked out into the bush. The event marked a momentous occasion in Australia’s history: It was the first time in 3,000 years that a wild Tasmanian devil had set foot on the mainland.

“Devils are superheroes,” Faulkner tells Future Human. “They’re not a threat to agriculture, they don’t eat livestock, and they don’t eat children. They’re our insurance against fire, feral pests, weeds — you name it.”

A lifelong wildlife activist, Faulkner is now the head of Aussie Ark, a nonprofit that has spent the last decade trying to save the Tasmanian devil from extinction. Devils were driven out of the mainland by dingoes, a species of wild dog that has roamed Australia since the 1700s, and are now found only in the scrublands and forests of Tasmania, where the 25,000 devils that are left face the constant threat of extinction due to Devil Facial Tumor Disease, a parasitic cancer.

Devils play a key role in balancing the local ecosystem. They help control populations of feral cats and foxes and make forests and grasslands more resistant to wildfires. By digging up the forest floor in search of food, they turn up dry leaves, robbing fires of their natural fuel. “The fires earlier this year were absolutely devastating and threatened to rob us of our hope,” said Faulkner. “This is our response to that threat of despair: Come what may, ultimately we will not be deterred in our efforts to put an end to extinction and to rewild Australia.”

“To save the planet — and therefore to save us — we need people to pay attention.”

Aussie Ark’s Tasmanian devil program is part of a larger push by global conservation groups to spend more time and resources investing in local organizations whose sustained, at-home efforts can have a bigger impact on the fate of threatened wildlife species. Every species plays an equally important role in their respective ecosystem, meaning preserving natural biodiversity is critical for the survival of all species — our own included. While this may seem obvious, it hasn’t been easy for conservation groups to put this idea into practice. Big research institutions and influential NGOs have the global reach to document and rediscover animals, but they don’t always have the resources to protect and preserve them afterward.

This is where organizations like Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC), a nonprofit based in Texas, come in. GWC funnels its support directly to grassroots groups like Aussie Ark, leveraging local and indigenous knowledge to locate and sustain endangered species. The boots-on-the-ground work is left entirely to local groups like Faulkner’s, whose emotional and physical connection to the land and its biodiversity stretches back for generations. Other groups backed by GWC include the Baird’s Tapir Survival Alliance, which is based in Latin America; the Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group in Indonesia and the Philippines; and SMART, which helps park rangers in Africa to stop poachers and curb the illegal trade of wildlife.

In 2017, GWC launched what has become its most successful grassroots conservation program to date: the Search for Lost Species, the largest-ever quest to find and conserve animals long unseen and feared extinct in partnership with local scientists and conversation groups from 18 countries around the world. The program’s 25 “most wanted” list spans land- and water-dwelling species including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, three fish, and one insect, picked as much for their ecological value as their tantalizing backstories. There’s the pink-headed duck, whose bright plumage inspired a British birder to dedicate his life to tracking it down; Miss Waldron’s Red Colobus, which almost became the first primate to be declared extinct in 500 years; and the Fernandina Galápagos tortoise, whose odds of rediscovery were once put on par with those of a Yeti by Himalayan mountaineering legend Eric Shipton.

While ecological diversity and planetary health remain the driving forces of the program, the Search for Lost Species is also an exercise in something arguably more ambitious: hope. Hope that maybe these species are still out there, hope that their rediscovery will help rebalance the ecological scale, and hope that our efforts to save the planet will not be in vain. Amid the constant we-are-all-screwed environmental narrative, any reminder that we are not, in fact, screwed serves as a powerful motivation to keep trying.

“It’s important that Joe Public understands that conservation can be successful,” Barney Long, GWC’s senior director of species conservation, told Future Human. “To save the planet — and therefore to save us — we need people to pay attention.”

In 2016, GWC and the Colombian conservation nonprofit Fundación Atelopus rediscovered the Starry Night Harlequin Toad, which had not been seen since 1991, with crucial help from the Arhuaco indigenous peoples. Researchers found the toad in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, an isolated mountain range in Colombia that can be reached only by a grueling nine-hour hike up to a peak of 18,700 feet. This landscape is the ancestral home and territory of the Arhuaco community, a people who themselves face the threat of extinction from climate change and land rights disputes with the Colombian government. The Arhuaco have long used generational knowledge to protect their region’s rich biodiversity.

Local researchers, groups, and communities like the Arhuaco are essential to successful long-term conservation efforts. It’s these groups that monitor the health of local species, detect threats before too much damage is done, and, perhaps most importantly, educate younger generations to do the same. “A lot of these local groups are usually started by a lone biologist who gets obsessed with one species and wants to save it,” explained Long. “But that doesn’t mean they know how to do social media or manage people or write a proposal to get funding for conservation. You have to remember it’s not groups like us that save species; most of the time, it’s just that one guy in a room who has the passion and drive to do it.”

The Starry Night Harlequin Toad has not been scientifically documented in nearly 30 years, in part because its habitat is so inaccessible. It is also among the frog species hardest hit by the deadly and highly infectious chytrid fungus. Combined with habitat destruction and degradation, the fungus has imperiled 80 of the 96 harlequin toad species. Whenever one is rediscovered, scientists jump at the chance to learn how and why it survived. Such knowledge would not just help mitigate the disease, but also help manage other emerging pathogens, like the fungal diseases killing bats and snakes.

“These collaborations — with people who know the land and wildlife, who have lived in balance with nature, and who are fighting to protect wildlife and wildlands — are going to be critical in rewilding our world.”

Gaining access to the Arhuaco territory to obtain physical and photographic evidence of the toad took Fundación four years of negotiations with indigenous leaders. The Arhuaco see themselves as the guardians of all-natural life placed in their care and are fiercely protective of their territory, customs, and frogs, which act both as a biological indicator in the community — if a frog sings, it means it’s time to plant crops — as well as holding spiritual value as a symbol of fertility. When four researchers from Fundación were finally allowed access to the Arhuaco community in April 2020 to see the toad — but not photograph it — they didn’t have to look long: At a creek, just lazing in the sun, was not one, but 30 Harlequin Toads. After a few more months of trust-building, Fundación members were allowed back and snap a photograph, making the Starry Night Harlequin Toad’s rediscovery official.

“The key thing with this particular rediscovery was how it brought together science and indigenous knowledge,” Lina Valencia, GWC’s Colombia program coordinator, told Future Human. “These collaborations — with people who know the land and wildlife, who have lived in balance with nature, and who are fighting to protect wildlife and wildlands — are going to be critical in rewilding our world.”

Fundación is now working alongside a member of the Arhuaco community to develop a conservation plan for the Starry Night Harlequin Toad that combines traditional scientific methods with indigenous knowledge. This partnership benefits both parties: for the Arhuaco, it’s a way to show the world the benefits of traditional conservation methods; for Fundación and GWC, it’s proof that it’s not too late to turn the extinction narrative on its head.

“It’s a powerful story about how working with indigenous and local communities can help us not just find species lost to science, but better understand how some species are surviving and how we can conserve the natural world in a way that connects spiritual and cultural knowledge,” Valencia said.

In the last three years, GWC has confirmed the rediscovery of six species from its 25 Most Wanted list, a triumph that has attracted international headlines, photo ops, and celebrity endorsements. (The current Search for Lost Species campaign video features Daniel Craig brandishing a tortoise.)

But this way of doing things is not without its challenges. The biggest of these is the significant pushback from government and industry groups, particularly in smaller, underdeveloped nations where governments are unstable and there is little room for negotiation. Overcoming these challenges usually requires intervention at a national, and sometimes global, level from organizations with a little bit more muscle. “Bigger, and sometimes negative forces, can often sweep away initial and early successes with this approach,” Joe Walston, senior vice president of the Wildlife Conservation Society, told me.

What this approach to conservation does, perhaps better than any other, is build more local awareness of the importance of ecological conservation and the problems faced by a dying planet.

“If we’ve learned any lesson from 2020, is that one cannot divorce the issues of environmental and human health,” Walston continued. “As we tackle the impacts of a virus that emanated from wildlife, we are faced with this triumvirate of existential crises: climate change, zoonotic pandemics, and the loss of biodiversity. These challenges are so linked that conservation must be at the heart of the response for all three. Nothing more clearly defines our future on this planet than the ability to address those three crises through a single approach — and that is environmental conservation.”

The reintroduction of Tassie devils on the Australian mainland made news all across a country ravaged by worsening annual wildfires. Faulkner is hopeful that Aussie Ark’s “insurance population” of Tassie devils can help restore some balance to Australia’s rural areas, which have the worst mammal extinction rate on the planet. The 11 devils released last September will now roam the 1,000-acre wildlife sanctuary near Barrington Tops, a protected national park. Regular surveys, radio collars, and camera traps will allow Faulkner and his team the opportunity to track how the devils are faring, what challenges they are facing, what they are eating, and whether they’re reproducing. This information will help inform future releases on the mainland, which are being planned once a year.

Faulkner’s hope is that the devils will thrive and breed in the wild, roaming the great forests as they once did 3,000 years ago and slowly restoring balance to an ecosystem plagued by pests, drought, and wildfires. “In 100 years, we are going to be looking back at this day as the day that set in motion the ecological restoration of an entire country,” Faulkner said.

Let’s hope we — and the countless species at risk of extinction — are still around to see it.

Writer, Jules Verne enthusiast, baked goods connoisseur. Arts, culture, science & tech.

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