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Protecting Endangered Species: Animal Conservation Programs & Success Stories

Humans play a vital role in protecting endangered species and preserving biodiversity. Discover the ways you can contribute to a more sustainable future.
Two sea turtles being released back to the sea with legs of people in the background

Pandas, tigers, and other majestic animals make the world a more beautiful place, but it is up to humans to find ways to help endangered species thrive. According to the World Wildlife Fund, overall wildlife populations have declined by approximately 60 percent over the past 40 years. Still, there are also many emerging projects and initiatives that are making significant strides in helping bring these animals back. Protecting every species is an important step in maintaining biodiversity, and significant conservation efforts have helped to keep a wide range of endangered species from dropping to even more critical levels.

Many previously endangered species have also been moved to lower-priority categories through decades of education, habitat protection, captive breeding and reintroduction, stiffer penalties for interfering with endangered species, and other conservation efforts. Here are some of the most important things to know about the importance of biodiversity and the significant role humans play in protecting endangered species.

The significance of biodiversity

Most animals are not as independent as we often think they are, and biodiversity plays a key role in building an environment in which each species has what they need to survive. Every ecosystem is made up of thousands of unique species that meet others' needs in the form of food, protection, and other uses, which means that allowing even a small number of species to go extinct can have an impact on a broader range of animals' ability to thrive.

For example, approximately 80 percent of a typical human diet consists of plants or animals that eat at least some plants, while around 20 percent is linked to fish. This means that seemingly minor disruptions that do not initially appear to directly impact humans can significantly alter the overall food chain. The abundance or absence of many of these species can also impact humans' way of life, especially in certain cultures or regions that have an especially high level of dependence on them.

Ecosystem health

Species that live among a wide variety of types of life often thrive at a higher level than those that are only close to a few other species because strong biodiversity makes it possible for a wide range of needs to be met at once. Ecosystems that consist of many types of life are typically among the most stable because they often result in animals that are more resilient and capable of adapting to circumstances that may be more challenging for less complex ecosystems to handle.

For instance, animals that live in exceptionally diverse ecosystems are often more capable of surviving certain diseases, thriving in spite of climate change, and managing other environmental challenges than species that tend to be more isolated. Most animals also rely on other species for food, meaning an abundance or lack of the right plants or smaller animals can impact their health and survival.

Human well-being

Human beings are also a species that is part of various ecosystems, which means that living near a wide range of animals can also benefit our overall well-being. We may not always think of ourselves as animals, but it is essential to remember that humans have relied on other species to meet a wide range of needs throughout history, and to this day, many people's way of life is impacted by the types of animals that live nearby.

For example, animals have always played a key role in providing protein-rich food, and animal byproducts are found in a wide range of medications that can help people live much longer and more comfortable lives. This means that the increasing scarcity of animals that are most frequently used for these purposes may have a significant negative impact on the overall way of life of humans who depend on them.

Young girl and group of adult volunteers picking up trash and cleaning nature together

Protecting endangered species: Understanding the need

Giant pandas, tigers, snow leopards, blue whales, and other magnificent species may be among the world's most recognizable animals, but it is important for humans to make intentional choices that help to increase their numbers. Several factors are used to classify these creatures as endangered, and their status may shift over time. Here are some of the most important things to know about how endangered species are identified.

Criteria for identifying endangered species

Learning about how species are labeled can help you better understand what each category means. Species fall into one of seven categories that identify their status and specific criteria that influence that status, which often change over time. These categories include:

  • Least concern
  • Near threatened
  • Vulnerable
  • Endangered
  • Critically endangered
  • Extinct in the wild
  • Extinct

Species must meet several criteria to be classified as endangered. This means that some species may fall somewhere in between two or more distinct categories, but they are typically labeled as endangered if:

  • Its population has declined between 50 and 70 percent over the past three generations or ten years
  • Its known geographic range is less than 1,930 square miles
  • There are believed to be fewer than 2,500 adult animals within this geographic range
  • The probability of the species becoming extinct within five generations or twenty years is at least 20 percent
  • There are believed to be fewer than 250 adult animals worldwide

Global extinction crisis

Despite significant conservation efforts over the past several decades, over 99 percent of species that have ever existed are extinct. Many of these extinctions are directly linked to human actions, which means that focusing on education is key to helping everyone consider the impact they can have on protecting endangered species that still have a chance.

A Giant Panda eating bamboo

Conservation strategies for protecting endangered species

Conservation efforts generally consist of one or more specific strategies that work to address a particular concern. Many larger environmental organizations work to make improvements to the majority of these areas, while smaller groups often target one specific goal. Here are some of the most common strategies for contributing to conservation efforts across the country and around the world!

Habitat preservation

Habitat destruction is among the most common reasons species become endangered or extinct, but many of these situations are at least somewhat preventable. Reducing the number of trees that are cut down, taking steps to keep water sources clean, and improving wildfire management can go a long way toward creating safer and more comfortable places for many species to live. Conservationists have recently found success preserving the wetlands, rivers, and streams home to Alaskan salmon. The Nature Conservancy also makes significant strides in this area.

Breeding and reintroduction programs

Many species have current wild populations that are too small to stand a strong chance of long-term survival on their own, which means that responsibly breeding a carefully calculated number of these animals in captivity and reintroducing them into the wild is an alternative option that is more likely to be successful. Conservationists in India are finding success with this technique by selecting eight cheetahs from Namibia and breeding approximately 50 cheetahs to eventually release into the wild. In the United States, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums plays a significant role in furthering breeding and reintroduction programs.

Legal protections

Creating policies that provide legal protections for specific species or work to protect the environment as a whole is one of the most direct ways to reduce harm to endangered species. Some major laws and agreements that are currently working to protect specific endangered species or the overall environment include:

Community engagement

Finding ways to get your community involved in projects that support your conservation efforts is often much more successful than attempting to make a difference on your own. Hosting community events that bring awareness to a cause you care about, asking for donations, and otherwise involving as many people as you can are helpful ways to come closer to meeting your goals than you would on your own. The World Wildlife Fund works directly with individuals and community groups in various ways.

Success stories

While there will likely always be a significant need to help endangered species, there have been many success stories that show that past and current conservation efforts have produced a wide range of meaningful results. Here are just a few of the many ways conservationists have made a difference for many animals!

Bald eagle recovery

Bald eagles are protected by a wide range of legislation, such as the Endangered Species Act, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Because of this bird's significance as an American icon, many initiatives have brought bald eagles from being classified as endangered to least concern. Some key projects that made this possible include:

  • Captive breeding and reintroduction
  • Initiatives to protect nest sites and other aspects of bald eagles' habitats
  • Increased law enforcement efforts to protect wild eagles
  • Ongoing monitoring through the Endangered Species Act to make sure numbers are staying at an acceptable level

California Condor conservation

California condors are critically endangered, but a massive international effort led by the US Fish and Wildlife Service is working to protect these birds and increase their numbers. This recovery program combines several projects, including:

  • Significant habitat protection
  • Captive breeding
  • Releasing condors that are likely to be able to survive in the wild
  • Monitoring released condors to determine whether they are surviving at the rate conservationists would like to see

Giant panda conservation

While giant pandas remain among the world's most endangered species, efforts in China and around the world are helping to stabilize their population. China is home to over 40 panda reserves, protected areas that eliminate typical dangers to provide a safe habitat where pandas can live and reproduce similarly to how they would in the wild with minimal direct human assistance. Some of the main goals of these reserves include:

  • Providing a safe environment that is free of poaching, logging, other types of human interference, and other predators
  • Maintaining an adequate bamboo supply
  • Providing safe corridors that pandas can use to move between reserves to migrate as they naturally would
  • Treating significant illnesses or injuries
  • Conducting research to better understand panda behavior and share this information with visitors and communities

Sea turtle protection

Sea turtles can no longer be imported, sold, transported, harassed, killed, or otherwise interfered with in the United States, which has helped to reduce poaching and other human threats. The Sea Turtle Conservancy supports a variety of programs that help to protect these creatures.

Gray wolf reintroduction

Efforts to reintroduce gray wolves into Yellowstone National Park have been successful enough to alter its entire ecosystem for the better. This complex project has increased the numbers of beavers and other smaller animals within the park by controlling the elk population, which became too large for its prey to thrive when the last wolves in the park's ecosystem died in the 1930s.

Gray wolf on a rock outcropping with forest background

Ongoing challenges

While your commitment to finding ways to protect endangered species is commendable, not everyone is as invested in contributing to meaningful change as you are. Unfortunately, humans at least partially contribute to many of the most common reasons species are becoming endangered and extinct. Destructive human activities, a lack of funding, and climate change believed to be contributed to by humans are among the most common sources of the urgent need for conservation efforts.

Human activities

While many people appreciate the importance of wildlife and strive to make choices that protect animals and the environment, others are among the most significant problems when keeping numbers at an acceptable level. Poaching, other illegal hunting, and habitat destruction are some of the most common reasons for declining populations among many species, which means that finding ways to educate these individuals about the consequences of their actions and reduce intentional destructive behavior is a must when stabilizing these populations.

Climate change

Climate change can also cause certain species to become endangered or extinct because it can pose a significant threat to their way of life. Some species simply cannot survive in warmer temperatures than they are used to, while others struggle to find enough food, water, or other necessary resources that are impacted by increasing temperatures, more frequent strong storms and wildfires, and other challenges related to climate change. These issues can both directly kill animals and reduce their capacity to reproduce at typical rates, resulting in overall populations dying faster than they can be replenished and eventually disappearing.

Funding and resources

Conservation efforts require significant amounts of funding, materials, and volunteers to be successful, and even the best-known conservation organizations often struggle to bring in the donations or government funding they need to put their ideas into action. Because a wide range of causes must compete for a limited amount of government funding and private donations, convincing enough donors that conservation efforts should be among their highest priorities can be challenging.

Two volunteers wearing red shirts teaching a group of children and adults about protecting wildlife

How individuals can help in protecting endangered species

You may not have the power to change policies on your own, but there are several ways in which you can help to raise awareness of conservation-related issues that are important to you, support organizations that have a higher level of influence when it comes to working toward lasting change and advocating for the policies you would like to see enacted both as an individual and by partnering with a larger organization that is committed to increasing conservation efforts across the country and around the world. Here are four impactful ways you can work toward protecting a wide range of species!

Support conservation organizations

Attempting to raise awareness of environmental issues that mean the most to you on your own is unlikely to make more than a nominal difference in the bigger picture of what is needed to work toward lasting change. However, contributing time, money, and other resources to organizations that support the specific areas you are most interested in can be an effective way of protecting endangered species. Work with groups that are more capable of making big moves as they have a higher level of visibility, more members, and a strong reputation among other people who are passionate about conservation efforts.

Sustainable practices

Choosing sustainable alternatives to a wide range of aspects of your life can be an important step in reducing your carbon footprint and protecting wildlife. From choosing solar energy and electric vehicles to making an effort to travel sustainably and shop for stationery, clothing, and other products made from recycled materials, making more eco-friendly decisions as a consumer can be one of the most impactful ways to contribute to conservation efforts.

Raise awareness

Policy changes do not happen overnight, and taking steps to raise awareness of conservation-related issues and share information about why they matter with the public plays a key role in building interest in working toward solutions. Once more people and organizations become passionate about a specific cause, they can often more successfully persuade policymakers to consider their positions and ideas for solutions. Some common ways you can bring key issues to the public's attention include:

  • Using social media to share information about issues that matter to you and why you believe they are important for everyone to consider.
  • Attending rallies, marches, and other events that aim to raise awareness of a specific cause at the local, state, and national level.
  • Contacting your elected representatives to let them know about specific issues their constituents are thinking about.
  • Consuming books, documentaries, journal articles, and other quality content about issues that are important to you and recommending them to your library and the people in your life.
  • Teaching your children and other younger friends and family members about the importance of living an eco-friendly lifestyle.
  • Creating your own articles, videos, or other content in an area that aligns with your creative skill set to provide even more specific information about your views than what may be currently available.

Advocacy and policy

Any major change starts with recognizing a need and finding ways to raise awareness of why it is a worthwhile issue to be concerned about. Advocacy often starts at the individual level, and anyone can take steps to build interest among others in their community and eventually bring their concerns to local, state, and national governments.

While it often takes many years of consistent advocacy to result in significant policy changes, starting with smaller steps is an essential part of working toward protecting endangered species through stronger conservation policies or improving any other major issue. Some practical ways you can help to raise awareness of the need for more vigorous conservation efforts and advocate for policy change include:

  • Discussing specific issues and improvements you would like to see made with friends, family members, and community members through social media and in-person conversations.
  • Participating in local, statewide, or national advocacy days that work to raise awareness of a specific issue.
  • Hosting an event to raise money that will be used to support a specific policy change.
  • Calling or emailing your Congressman or other representatives.
  • Meeting with your Congressman or other representative in person or inviting them to attend a conservation-focused event hosted by your organization.
  • Learning more about the specific issues that are most important to you and donating to or volunteering with organizations that are working toward making improvements in those areas.

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