2020: Fabulous Year for Wildlife

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

Whilst humanity has had a lot of unwanted ghastliness to contend with in 2020, one of the positive upsides has been a the extraordinary global renaissance for wildlife - partly through human absence caused by lockdown and partly through successful conservation efforts. We review some of the highlights to help put a festive smile on your face.


Baby Boom for Elephants: The Amboseli National Park in Kenya reported more than 170 calves by the end of summer, versus 113 in all of 2018 – including two sets of twins. The pachyderm pregnancy peak followed heavy rain the previous year, which means better grazing and more successful births. Alongside the elephantine baby boom, Kenya has said that the rate of poaching has fallen to just seven – down from 80 in 2018 – with numbers of the animals rebounding from 16,000 in 1989 to more than 34,000.

Tigers Bounce Back: Tigers have made a surprising comeback from near-extinction. Becci May, at WWF UK, says: “Ten years ago, tigers were in such a perilous state, that there was a very real risk of them becoming extinct in the wild. From that population low in 2010, they are finally making a remarkable comeback in much of South Asia, Russia and China, thanks to co-ordinated and concerted conservation efforts in these countries.” India’s story of tiger recovery is one of astonishing hope: from 2006 to 2018, the estimate for tigers in the wild more than doubled with the latest estimate from the Wildlife Institute of India of between 2,600 and 3,350 individuals, which is approximately three-quarters of the world’s tiger population.

Endangered Chinese Leopard Rebounds: Despite their resilience, poaching and habitat loss has caused leopard populations everywhere to have a tough time. But it appears that’s not the case for the big cats in the Loess Plateau of northern China, where numbers of the North Chinese leopard subspecies have increased by 25 percent, according to recent research. “About 20 years ago, much of the Loess Plateau’s forest habitat was transformed into agricultural land. Human activity scared away wild boars, toads, frogs, and deer - making it impossible for leopards to find food. Now that much of the forest has been restored, prey has returned, along with the leopards,” explains Bing Xie from Beijing University.

Wolverine Recovery: It's nothing to do with the X-Men movie franchise! It's actually another good news story of wildlife recovery. Mount Rainier National Park, a 369 square mile Washington state reserve southeast of Seattle, surrounds glacier-capped, Mount Rainier. Now, for the first time in a century, the super-rare wolverine - spotted by camera stations dotted around the wilderness - has established residence in the park. Their discovery is good news for wildlife management within the park, and for the ecosystem surrounding it. “It’s really, really exciting,” said Mount Rainier National Park Superintendent Chip Jenkins. “It tells us something about the condition of the park - that when we have such large-ranging carnivores present on the landscape that we’re doing a good job of managing our wilderness.”

Bison Now Thriving in Europe: A century ago, only 50 European bison remained on Earth, and they were mostly confined to breeding sanctuaries. But today, far from the rolling American plains, wild bison in Europe are recovering in large numbers. The European wood bison population has grown so much that it's no longer considered 'vulnerable' according to the global authority on conservation, the IUCN, in their latest Red List update. Bison are living in in Poland, the Netherlands, Russia, Belarus, the Baltics, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and Romania. In total there are well over 6,000 individuals across 47 free ranging herds, and all thanks to large scale conservation strategies - it’s a wonderful example of what can be accomplished with large herbivores when given time, space, and safety.

Giant Turtles Booming in Brazil: The giant South American river turtle is one of the largest freshwater turtles in the world and can weigh up to 200 pounds. They play a vital role in river ecosystems cycling nutrients, scavenging, and contributing to soil dynamics. It’s been a big year for turtles, with lockdowns allowing them to hatch on beaches that are, for once, free from humans. Last week, however, a remarkable hatching event took place on the Purus River in Brazil as a reported 90,000 giant South American river turtles were born. A turtle tsunami!

Large Blue Butterfly Returns: Large blue butterfly returns to Cotswolds for first time in 150 years after an extraordinary conservation effort to accommodate insect’s complex lifecycle pays off. About 750 butterflies emerged on to Rodborough Common in Gloucestershire this summer after 1,100 larvae were released last autumn following five years of innovative grassland management to create optimum habitat. The globally endangered butterfly now flies in greater number in Britain than anywhere else in the world, four decades after it became extinct in the country. Its return to Britain is arguably the most successful insect reintroduction project worldwide, after caterpillars were initially brought from Sweden in an ecologist’s camper van.

First brown bear for 150 years: A brown bear has been spotted traversing a rugged and sparsely populated area of Galicia in north-west Spain for the first time in 150 years thanks to a set of camera traps and a bit of luck. Although the area is home to wolves, deer and wild boars, this is believed to be the first time a brown bear has been seen in more than a century. Rangers said that “Years of conservation work in the Invernadeiro national park have allowed it to become a suitable habitat for the brown bear.”

Gharial Conservation Efforts: Frequently mistaken for a crocodile or alligator, gharials live in the northern rivers of the Indian subcontinent and became critically endangered. This unique reptile is believed to have split from all other crocodilians around 60 million years ago and has developed an elongated snout tipped with a distinctive bulge. All the better for feeding on their diet of fish and crustaceans. In the river ecosystems of Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Bhutan, it's estimated that gharial populations declined from approximately 10,000 individuals in 1946 to fewer than 250, a drop of 97 percent within three generations, relegating them to the critically endangered category on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list. Now, thanks to successful conservation efforts, the gharials' future is looking considerably rosier as today, one river alone, holds over 1,800 of these extraordinary long snouted reptiles.


Meanwhile, in the oceans:

2020: Wonderful Year for Marine Life. The year has witnessed a remarkable come back in marine life and ecosystems, partly attributable to the absence of humans courtesy of lockdown and partly thanks to successful conservation efforts. You will remember our collective surprise and delight earlier this year when fish were once again seen flourishing in Venice's canals, followed by whales being spotted off New York and rare pink dolphins returning to waters off Hong Kong. Here are some more marine life discoveries, events and reports to warm the heart...