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Earth Optimism: Tracking Success in Species Recovery

By Barney Long, GWC director of species conservation In 2008, tigers were in trouble. Conservationists, who were giving up on the strategy of saving large areas of habitat where tigers could fulfill their ecological niche as top predators, were instead starting to consider a more protectionist strategy using only a handful of sites to slow...

By Barney Long, GWC director of species conservation

In 2008, tigers were in trouble. Conservationists, who were giving up on the strategy of saving large areas of habitat where tigers could fulfill their ecological niche as top predators, were instead starting to consider a more protectionist strategy using only a handful of sites to slow the decline.

The year 2010 marked a significant turning point for tiger conservation: the 13 tiger range countries, along with the global conservation community, held the global tiger summit and agreed not just to save tigers, but to double the number of tigers in the wild. For the first time the conversation shifted from saving tigers to recovering tigers. The difference may seem subtle, but it is significant. Tiger recovery requires discussions about more tigers living alongside more humans, landscapes that enable tigers to live and disperse, smart green infrastructure, and protected areas across a landscape as safe havens for tigers. In short, the conversation is actually totally different. It is more ambitious, it is more exciting, and often going big in this way can inspire optimism and action that small, incremental steps simply cannot.

Conservationists aim to double the world’s tiger population.

This shift in conversation, which I witnessed firsthand, will always stay with me, and is one of the driving forces behind my involvement in helping to establish the IUCN Green List of Species*, which aims to highlight inspiring conservation successes.

Our mission is to conserve the diversity of life on Earth. At the species level, this means preventing extinctions, maintaining viable populations, and enabling the recovery of declining and depleted populations. Much conservation has, appropriately, focused on avoiding extinctions and reducing rates of declines. This includes the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the global system that identifies, based on standard, global criteria, whether a species is threatened. Everyone has heard of Endangered and Critically Endangered species even if they did not realize where these terms came from. The IUCN Red List provides clear, defensible criteria to classify how close to extinction a species is.

The Conservation Biology paper uses the Saiga Antelope as a case study to help illustrate the proposed framework.

The IUCN Red List has proven an invaluable tool for assessing species risk and demonstrating conservation success when a species’ status is changed based on a real change in status due to conservation efforts. If we envision a thriving Earth where species live in balance with their ecosystems, however, we don’t just want to avoid extinctions, we must strive for the recovery of species populations.

A ranger Using telemetry gear on Anchor Island to monitor for kākāpō, as part of the kākāpō Recovery Program, which has helped bring the species back from 51 to 149 individuals today. (Photo by Laura Patience)

To inspire a conversation and empower a movement focused on the demonstrable recovery of species populations, it is important that we develop a global standard on how to quantify conservation success in order to incentivize the conservation community to increase our ambitions.

The Green List of Species will assess plant species, in addition to Animal species. The paper used Caley’s Grevillea as a case study.

A paper published today in Conservation Biology seeks to present a framework for the IUCN Green List of Species that quantifies measures of species recovery and conservation success. It starts with defining a “fully recovered” species as one that:

  • Has the attributes necessary for long-term persistence (e.g. large, stable, healthy, genetically robust, with replicated populations) and therefore a very low risk of extinction.
  • Exhibits the full range of its ecological interactions, functions, and other roles in the ecosystem.
  • Is present, viable, and ecologically functional in a representative set of ecosystems and communities throughout its indigenous range.
The newly published paper also illustrates the framework using the Lord Howe Island Stick Insect.

In order to tell the whole story of the conservation status, conservation impacts, and potential of conservation to recover a species, the proposed framework of the IUCN Green List of Species proposes four additional concepts to complement the IUCN Red List status:

  • The conservation legacy of the species, i.e., the impacts of past conservation.
  • The conservation dependence of the species, i.e., what would happen if all current conservation action ceased.
  • The conservation gain, i.e. the closer a species moves toward ‘fully recovered’ as the result of conservation action, and
  • The long-term recovery potential of a species, i.e. how close to ‘fully recovered’ a species can get with effective conservation action within a designated period of time.

Using this framework, we are confident that the IUCN Green List of Species will become a tool that celebrates conservation success and inspires conservation ambition just as the commitments at the global tiger summit did.

Top photo: GWC Chief Scientist and CEO Wes Sechrest releases a Tasmanian Devil with Hollywood actor and Lonely Whale co-founder Adrian Grenier as part of program to recover the Tasmanian Devil population. (Photo courtesy of Aussie Ark)

*Title is a working draft and may be adjusted in the coming months.

Dr. Barney Long is Global Wildlife Conservation’s director of species conservation. He works on the conservation of endangered mammal species and the thematic approaches required to achieve the recovery of their populations. He has worked extensively on Saola, Sumatran and Javan Rhino, Tiger, Gibbons, Doucs and a host of other species across the world. 

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Global Wildlife Conservation
Global Wildlife Conservation conserves the diversity of life on Earth by safeguarding wildlands, protecting wildlife and supporting guardians. We maximize our impact through scientific research, biodiversity exploration, habitat conservation, protected area management, wildlife crime prevention, endangered species recovery, and conservation leadership cultivation. Learn more at