Top 10 Happy Environmental Stories of 2018


Basten Gokkon | Mongabay – TRANSCEND Media Service

  • Throughout 2018, efforts to protect habitats and conserve threatened species were driven by governments, scientists, NGOs and indigenous communities.
  • The world pledged more conservation funding to protect the oceans, while protections for coastal ecosystems were also boosted.
  • Conservation initiatives steered by indigenous communities continue to garner attention and praise, not least because they tend to be more sustainable and effective than top-down programs.
  • These were among the upbeat, happy environmental and conservation stories we reported on in 2018.

31 Dec 2018 – “I like to envision the whole world as a jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces of puzzle scattered all over the place. If you look at the whole picture it is overwhelming and terrifying, but if you work on your little part of the jigsaw and know that people all over the world are working on their little bits of it, that’s what will give you hope,” Jane Goodall, the world-renowned primatologist and conservationist and Mongabay adviser, says in a post on her Facebook page.

Hope for global conservation is what we wish to evoke in our readers with some of the more upbeat environmental stories from the past year that we have pieced together from around the world in this list. These include some of your favorite happy stories, from the expansion of protected areas for wildlife, cancelled reclamation projects that posed coastal ecosystem threats, to the impactful role of indigenous communities in conservation.

  1. More protection for wildlife corridors

This year, we saw substantial efforts to beef up protection of areas that are important for wildlife. The government of Belize created one of Central America’s largest biological corridors to provide safe passage for wild animals like jaguars, pumas and Baird’s tapir to move freely between two big reserves in the country. This highly important corridor would not have been achieved without the commitment of the government, conservation groups and private landowners in conservation initiatives.

Last month, Honduras pledged to protect a third of the tropical rainforests found in the Moskitia landscape, Central America’s second-largest rainforest, where one of the wild places in the region exists. This commitment can “change the course of history” for the country in protecting the region’s abundant wildlife, carbon stocks and indigenous groups from recent incursions by ranchers.

Apart from protecting the habitats of threatened species, a study showed that protected areas can also provide refuge for animals during armed conflict, as was the case in Manas National Park, a protected area in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, in the Himalayan foothills. From the late 1980s until 2003, ethno-political violence rocked the park, linked by an important wildlife corridor to Bhutan’s Royal Manas National Park.

A jaguar. Image by Julie Larsen Maher.

  1. Rhinos get a fighting chance

The key starter for conservation success is strategic communication, which was instrumental in Nepal’s effort to tackle the loss of the country’s rhinos. It has also brought a global spotlight to the South Asian nation’s commitment to saving the big mammal.

Wildlife scientists have for the first time ever successfully used IVF (in vitro fertilization) techniques to combine previously frozen sperm from the near-extinct northern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) with eggs from the more abundant southern white rhino (C. s. simum) to create viable hybrid embryos. The researchers hope to implant the embryos into surrogate female southern white rhinos to produce hybrid baby rhinos, which will ensure that at least some of the northern white rhino DNA is preserved. How exciting is that?

Similarly thrilling in rhino conservation came this past November from Indonesia. A female Sumatran rhino was captured in the country’s part of Borneo and moved to a local sanctuary as part of an initiative to conserve the near-extinct species through captive breeding. See photos of the adorable rhino Pahu here.

Researchers recovering eggs from an anesthetized southern white rhino female.
Image courtesy of Safari Park Dvůr Králové.

  1. Pics show it did happen

Camera trap photos and video have allowed us to learn what wild animals are really like in their habitat. This past February, researchers captured rare video of a newborn western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) in the rainforests of Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of Congo. The baby is the offspring of a female gorilla named Mekome and a male silverback named Kingo.

Camera traps are a great way to monitor wildlife activities, but sometimes they also capture species thought to be extinct. A camera trap in Gabon’s Batéké Plateau National Park snagged an image of a spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), which was believed to have vanished two decades ago. The discovery has given conservation groups hope that protection of the park is working and allowing wildlife to return.

In an Indonesian national park home to the world’s last population of Javan rhinos, a network of camera traps has become a benevolent Big Brother, yielding the first ever video of the species mating in the wild. What’s even better is that the female rhino is now pregnant!

One of the camera traps also showed a female Javan rhino with her baby, giving park officials and conservationists greater hope for the survival of this elusive species. The population appears to be holding steady at a minimum of 68 individuals. A separate group of wildlife photographers also got jaw-dropping pics and video of a wallowing Javan rhino. Catch the 12-minute video here.

Mekome with her newborn baby. Image courtesy of WCS Congo.

  1. A Colombian sanctuary for once-trafficked birds

Colombia is home to the most important aviary in South America, a sanctuary containing almost 2,000 birds. The privately run National Aviary of Colombia is now home to 165 different species rescued from illegal wildlife traffickers. Read about how this facility got its start here.

A harpy eagle. Image by Maria Fernanda Lizcano for Mongabay.

  1. Teaching wildlife to conserve themselves

Today, conservationists are using techniques first practiced with dolphins many decades ago to train a surprising number of wild species, ranging from chimpanzees to butterflies. One of the key goals is to teach animals in the wild to avoid human beings — people often being the most dangerous creatures in the jungle. “Whether you’re talking about a butterfly or you’re talking about a Harvard graduate, we all learn the same way,” says professional wildlife trainer Ken Ramirez.

Ken Ramirez works with an otter pup. Image courtesy of Ken Ramirez.

  1. Power to the people

A team of indigenous parabiologists in Bangaladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts, documenting their forest’s wildlife, have uncovered a surprisingly wide range of species. The paragbiologists belong to the Mro ethnic group, and with a Dhaka-based nonprofit conservation group, monitor hunting and consumption of turtles and other wild animals in villages; act as protectors of hornbill nests; and serve as community leaders. The Mro parabiologists have become so critical to the researchers’ work that they are regularly listed as formal co-authors of scientific papers.

Many indigenous groups in Uganda have traditional beliefs that encourage ape conservation. However, rapid population growth in the 20th century increasingly brought humans and gorillas into conflict. Today, conservation groups are working to harness traditional knowledge to protect apes, and to develop new techniques that allow humans and gorillas to coexist in peace.

Meanwhile, the illicit demand for their horns and other body parts has pushed rhino populations in both Africa and Asia to the brink of extinction. In northeastern India, though, one father-daughter team is hoping another rhino product can help save the species: its dung.

Exorcism may not be in the modern conservation textbook, but the act is part of the work of indigenous women, and older women in particular, in the Kawawana ICCA of Senegal’s Casamance region. In protecting their forest and rivers, these women enforce community-imposed environmental rules. Infractions like fishing or cutting wood outside of designated areas are blamed on possession by bad spirits, whose exorcism is part of the social punishment that keeps violators from doing it again.

In the Brazilian state of Pará, riverine communities along the Xingu River basin are running their own trading posts that are significantly boosting the income of their members. These improvements mean that it’s now economically viable for the families to go on living sustainably in the forest, and the rural exodus is being reversed.

Timor-Leste is trying to figure out how to sustainably tap its fisheries and other valued marine resources. Since the country gained independence in 2002, traditional laws known as tara bandu to govern the management of natural resources have been revived to control the exploitation of forests and oceans. This three-part series looks at how Maubere tribes are reviving customary law to protect the ocean, talks to traditional fishers on reviving depleted fish stocks, and finds out how the eco rules are rooted in tradition.

Mro parabiologists are regularly featured as co-authors in scientific papers resulting from their efforts.
Image courtesy of Scott Trageser Photography/Creative Conservation Alliance.

  1. Good news for coastal ecosystems

Environmental activists and advocates for traditional fishers have for years railed against a coastal reclamation project in Indonesia’s capital city. Their fight finally bore fruit this year when the Jakarta administration cancelled permits for a reclamation in the capital’s bay. Activists are now seeking efforts to revive the areas damaged by the construction that was permitted to take place.

In China, the shoreline of the Yellow Sea, where the mudflats have been filled with rock and soil, replacing dynamic, natural tidal zones with solid ground for ports, chemical plants and farmland, has gained protections. The government announced a sweeping package of reforms aimed at ending much of the land reclamation taking place on the mudflats.

Are you a fan of mangroves? Or interested in learning more about this unique forest ecosystem? The world commemorates International Mangrove Day every July, and we asked experts why mangroves matter. After reading that piece, get to know more about them and how they don’t all absorb carbon in equal concentrations. A little spoiler: soil.

Seagrass conservationists in June launched an online tool to crowdsource an image and location database of the underwater flowering plants across the world. Patchy mapping of seagrass meadows has hampered efforts to protect the plants from threats such as coastal development, sedimentation, coral farming and sand mining. Sign yourself up to SeagrassSpotter and start submitting pictures and locations of nearby seagrass meadows!

A tiger in Sundarban Tiger Reserve, India.
Image by Soumyajit Nandy via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

  1. Set it and protect it

Global participants in the fifth Our Ocean Conference in Bali pledged the highest amount of funding yet for new initiatives and commitments to the protection of a combined expanse of ocean eight times the size of Alaska. The pledges were valued at more than $10 billion to protect some 14 million square kilometers (5.4 million square miles) of the world’s oceans.

In November, Papua New Guinea announced its commitment to creating thousands of square kilometers of marine protected area in the Bismarck Sea by 2021; the government of New Caledonia voted in August to establish similar zones across 28,000 square kilometers (10,800 square miles) of waters.

Big props go to the government of Seychelles, which earlier this year created two new marine protected areas covering 210,000 square kilometers, or about the size of the island of Britain.

Aerial view of Aldabra. Image by Simisa via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

  1. A sustainable energy revolution

Henry Red Cloud, a descendant of the Oglalla Sioux tribe, runs Lakota Solar and the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center, which have become catalysts for an innovative new economic network — one that employs locals and connects tribes, while building greater energy independence among First Nations. The company is building and installing alternative energy systems, and training others to do the same, throughout remote areas of U.S. reservations, thus allowing the Sioux and others to leap past outdated fossil fuel technology altogether.

Portable solar arrays helped power the Oceti Sakowin Camp, which rose at the north end of the Standing Rock Reservation in the summer and fall of 2016 in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Though primarily powered by wood and gasoline, the camps also ran on a great deal of solar.
Image by Saul Elbein.

  1. Agroforestry for conservation and sustainable livelihoods

Agroforestry is an age-old system of farming that captures carbon dioxide from the air and stores it in tree branches, trunks and soil, making it a useful solution to climate change, one which also boosts soil horizons, groundwater levels and biodiversity.

In the arid Kyrgyz border region of Batken, farmers grow agroforestry gardens of pomegranate, peach, apple, apricot and cherry trees, which provide shade and moisture to intercropped vegetables and low fruit crops like strawberry and raspberry. Farmers also enjoy diverse harvests for a longer period of time each year, from spring to autumn, and their forest-mimicking gardens are home to hedgehogs, hares and lynx.

Tajikistan is a dry and mountainous country where agroforestry is increasingly stabilizing soils degraded by decades of overgrazing, while growing food and providing cover for wildlife. “Alley cropping” is the main agroforestry technique used in the area of Faizobod, in which crops or grains are grown between rows of fruit or nut trees that shield the tender annuals from incessant wind and sun.

In Papua New Guinea, where a predominantly agricultural society practices agroforestry widely, the method yields a wide array of produce for farmers, from areca nuts to coconut and cacao, and is seen as a tool to address the country’s issues of rapid population growth and shrinking land resources. The diverse and predictable harvests provided by agroforestry also allow the community of Gildipasi the additional luxury of setting aside nearby areas of forest for conservation.

Agroforestry is also likely to be helping save a Venezuelan park where indigenous communities are involved in the sustainable agroforestry livelihood projects. It’s seen by the local people as offering an alternative income over mining and deforestation. Meanwhile, Lenca indigenous women in Honduras say they’ve been empowered by a cooperative agroforestry system that they formed themselves. Through the co-op, they enjoy fair-trade deals and a sizable increase in the price of their produce.

Agroforestry in Tajikistan. Image by Daniyar Serikov for Mongabay


Basten Gokkon is a Jakarta-based writer with interest in wildlife conservation, renewable energy efforts, and indigenous peoples’ empowerment.

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