Oh boy, 2016 – where to begin? It turned out to be one topsy-turvy year indeed, for a lot of reasons. And while there may have been some bad news, there was some good news too – and nowhere was the good news more apparent than in some of the biggest conservation and environmental protection stories of the year! In 2016, we witnessed some fantastic ecological victories that are well worth celebrating. Here’s 7 of our favorites!
1. Ocean Protection Efforts see a Record-Breaking Year
Ocean conservation efforts saw a pretty impressive year in 2015 when Palau, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Chile collectively protected almost 3 million square kilometers of ocean, creating “Marine Protection Areas” or “MPAs” designed especially to halt fishing activities in those regions. So needless to say, 2016 had some pretty big shoes to fill. And it turns out, 2016 was more than up to the challenge!
In a banner move for ocean conservation efforts all over the world, the two largest MPAs ever were designated in 2016: the Ross Sea MPA off the coast of Antarctica covers 1.55 million square kilometers of ocean, and the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii which covers 583,000 square kilometers – which made it the largest single protected area on the planet up until the Ross Sea MPA dethroned it. That’s two records broken in the same year!
All in all, 2016 saw over 5 million square kilometers of ocean designated as new MPAs! This allows for the protection of countless millions of oceanic flora and fauna and will allow us to better protect and nurture our world’s marine habitats.
Aside from MPAs, 2016 also saw the United States government banning plastic microbeads in many commercial products. Plastic microbeads have been a major contributor to oceanic pollution in recent years, and this regulation will help curb plastic pollution in our shared waters.
2. The Ratification of the Paris Agreement to Limit Greenhouse Gases
In the latter months of 2015, the language of the agreement that was to become the Paris Agreement on Climate Change was negotiated and finalized by over 195 countries. However, it was not even open to signature until Earth Day of 2016.
By the end of December 2016, one year after the agreement was penned, over 194 countries had signed the agreement, of which 122 officially ratified it. In November of 2016, the agreement really went into effect when heavy hitters USA, China, and members of the EU ratified it (in total, 55 countries had ratified the treaty by November).
So, what was the Paris Agreement? It was a worldwide treaty specifically aimed at tackling anthropogenic (man-made) climate change. It devised a framework by which ratifying countries could reduce their greenhouse gas emissions with the explicit goal of limiting a rise in global temperature to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The agreement also aimed to improve our ability to adapt to climate change and foster climate resilience in our natural resources (especially food sources). It even included a pathway to allow ratifying nations to funnel finances into more sustainable energy production. The Paris deal was the FIRST comprehensive climate change agreement in the world!
3. Tigers, Pandas, and Other Endangered Species Making a Comeback
It’s always worth celebrating when a critically endangered species gets taken off the list. That’s exactly what happened to the giant panda in 2016, after a decades-long conservation effort for these adorable animals. Global panda populations have risen more than 17% in the last decade, and in September 2016, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) officially downgraded their endangered status to “Vulnerable”. As of September 2016, a global census recorded 1,864 giant pandas living in the wild. As pandas are some of the most instantly recognizable and much-beloved mascots of conservation the world over, this is of course wonderful news not just for this beleaguered species but animal conservation efforts as a whole.
Other animals to be taken off the “endangered” species list in 2016 include the West Indian manatee and the Green Sea Turtle (both of which are now listed as merely “threatened”). In the United States, 3 subspecies of Channel Island fox, the North American grizzly bear, and the Trumpeter swan were all removed from the Federal Endangered and Threatened list entirely.
While no species of tiger was moved up from “endangered” to merely “vulnerable” or “threatened” status in 2016, the year was an immensely noteworthy one: for the first time in a century, global tiger populations increased. Over the last 100 years, global tiger populations were basically in a state of constant decline. But tiger populations in the critical regions of India, Russia, Bhutan, and Nepal all increased in 2016, and the global minimum population of tigers sits at around 3,890 tigers at the end of 2016, up from 3,200 in 2010.
4. Bees Finally Get Some Recognition
Historically, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hasn’t taken our tiniest creatures very seriously. But in a big win for the little guys, seven different species of Hawaiian yellow-faced bees and the rusty-patched bumblebee all received “endangered” status and protection. This is the first time that any bee has been listed, despite the fact that dwindling bee populations have been a pretty big deal for ecosystem conservation groups for the better part of a decade.
Bees are hugely important parts of their ecosystem, as they are some of nature’s most efficient pollinators. The Hawaiian bees in particular have come under immediate threat due to various invasive ant and plant species, as well as the exploding population of feral pigs, and of course, human-led deforestation and development.
Bees are critical for maintaining the health of all plants and animals in a given ecosystem, and if they were to die out, the plants that depend on them would surely die as well; which in turn could lead to starvation for many herbivorous animal species, which then would affect the carnivores that prey on them. So let’s give bees a hand, and celebrate the fact that they are finally getting federal protection!
5. Bans on the Ivory Trade, and Other Victories in the War on Poaching
The war on poaching is one of the longest and hardest fought battlegrounds of the conservation movement, and poaching has by no means come to an end. But 2016 saw some great progress towards protecting animals from illegal poachers, with lots of new legislation aimed at closing loopholes on animal trafficking and creating heavier penalties for poachers.
In July 2016, the United States enacted a nearly-complete ban on commercial ivory trading. The U.S. was up until this point the second largest ivory market in the world, and the ban effectively shut it down. While previously ivory could be sold and traded so long as the vendor could prove the ivory was old and legally acquired, the new regulations further restricted ivory sales and exports across state lines and put a cap on the number of ivory trophies hunters abroad could legally import per year (previously this was unlimited). Hong Kong also began phasing out its illegal ivory trade, closing legal loopholes exploited by smugglers. Even the Tanzanian president has officially backed legislation to help curb the slaughter of elephants and put an end to the illegal ivory trade.
In other anti-poaching news, 2016 saw even further technological advancements in the war against poaching in African countries, as wildlife rangers widely adopted drone technology and improved tracking software in their efforts to defend wildlife in their game preserves and parks. South Africa and Nepal also substantially bolstered their rhino protections, marking the first annual decrease in rhino killings in SA since 2007. Nepal, meanwhile, marked its fourth year of absolutely zero rhinos poached since 2011.
Also in 2016, the international community voted at the 17th Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) conference to increase protections for pangolins, elephants, manta rays, nautilids, silky sharks, and thresher sharks. This was the single largest CITES conference since its inception in 1975. Gaining protections for all species of pangolins is an especially significant win, as pangolins are the most trafficked mammals in the world. Unfortunately, the CITES conference failed to agree to vote in protections for African lion species, but hopefully, with all these big steps happening everywhere else, these majestic big cats will get their increased protections at the next conference!
6. Major Victories for Captive Animals in Circuses and Sea World
I guess we have a documentary film to thank, at least in part, for this one: in the mid-2010’s, the wildly successful films “The Cove” and especially “Blackfish” helped inform and shape public opinions of captive animals, particularly those used for entertainment. Public opinion polls from late 2015 showed that nearly 40% of Americans felt that animals should have similar or the same legal protections as people, up from about 25% in 2008. In addition, a poll that same year showed that 69% of Americans were “somewhat to very” concerned about the treatment of circus animals.
In May of 2016, Sea World revealed that they (in agreement with the U.S. Humane Society) would cease breeding captive killer whales. This ties into the company’s other 2016 announcement that they would phase out theatrical orca shows at Sea World San Diego entirely in 2017. Additionally, Sea World CEO Joel Manby stated: “As one of the largest rescue organizations in the world, we will increase our focus on rescue operations — so that the thousands of stranded marine mammals like dolphins and sea lions that cannot be released back to the wild will have a place to go.” Social pressures from activist groups as well as increasing public outrage at the treatment of Sea World’s animals undoubtedly helped bring these excellent resolutions to fruition.
Sea World wasn’t the only entertainment outfit to make honest changes to its theatrical animal policies. In 2016, Ringling Bros. (the largest circus troupe in the United States) announced it would retire all of its elephant performers 2 years ahead of schedule. The final 11 Asian elephants performing in the circus joined their 30-some previously retired elephant brethren and were all relocated to the Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida. It’s a remote, 200-acre site that houses and protects some of the most critically endangered species in the world. The Ringling Bros.’ announcement of course cheered animal rights activists the world over.
7. Halting the Dakota Access Pipeline
Not to get political, but we’d of course be remiss if we failed to mention what was probably the single most widely-publicized environmental activism story of 2016 (at least, in the United States it was). Temporarily halting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock Indian Reservation, it was a small victory but a HUGE statement. The peaceful protest lasted several months and drew crowds of passionate and devoted environmental activists and protesters from around the country, united in their desires to protect the ecosystem as well as the lifeways and culture of the indigenous people – the Sioux.
After months of butting heads, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided to investigate alternative routes for the billion-dollar pipeline so as not to disrupt the ecosystem and, importantly, the drinkable water for the local Sioux Tribe.
This environmental and cultural concern became a hotly debated political issue for all sides of the political spectrum, and it is still not entirely resolved. One thing’s for sure, no matter which side of the political spectrum you fall on, this was a tremendous news story that shows how passionately some people are willing to fight to protect our earth and preserve our natural resources. For nature lovers like us, that’s nothing but good news.
Now that our list is complete, let’s take note of a few honorable mentions that didn’t quite make the cut, as they are more of an “ongoing improvement” that weren’t necessarily specific to 2016:
Honorable mention #1: Brazil’s forests are continuing to grow back.
Brazil has been making tremendous headway in protecting their ecosystems. Reforestation in the country is up 26% since 1999, and that upward trend continued into 2016 after a massive multi-national agreement to improve reforestation efforts in 2015. Many native animals and plants are actually returning to the region, after fleeing rampant human development and habitat destruction.
Honorable mention #2: Our ocean’s barrier reefs are recovering.
While most estimates still say we are going to lose around 70% of our barrier reefs by 2050, some coral reefs off the coast of Tanzania and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia apparently did not get the memo: these vital ecosystems have actually shown tremendous improvement and recovery since the early 2010s, and this progress continued into 2016.
Honorable mention #3: Arctic foxes are back in Finland.
2016 photos have verified that Arctic foxes have denned in Finland for the first time since 1996. This species got dangerously close to disappearing entirely from the country, which could have led to some pretty terrible consequences for the ecosystem. Hopefully this is a positive sign that they’re coming back!
So there you have it, some of the most heart-warming conservation stories and environmental actions that took place in 2016. It was a pretty decent year for conservation, but we’re not finished yet – keep your chin up and your head above water, keep fighting the good fight, and let these wins be a reminder to you that we can always do better for our world! Here’s to a phenomenal 2017, folks.