The past year may have seemed like doom and gloom for the environment, but there was plenty to be thankful for. So once again, we bring you some of the happier environmental stories of 2017 (in no particular order). These include rediscoveries of species that were once thought to be extinct, local communities being granted land rights, and the emergence of new technologies that are boosting conservation efforts.
1. New populations of rare wildlife were found
This year, conservationists discovered some new populations of threatened wildlife. Take, for example, the helmeted hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil). A research team recorded a new and “unexpectedly rich population” of this critically endangered bird in western Borneo. For a species that is now nearly extinct because of poaching, this discovery boosts hope for its future.
It was good news for the Grauer’s gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri) as well. Surveys in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Maiko National Park revealed several previously uncounted individuals of Grauer’s gorillas in just 1 percent of the park. The researchers think that there might be many more gorillas living inside the largely unexplored 10,885-square-kilometer (4,000-square-mile) park.
First-of-a-kind surveys of forests in Karen state in southeast Myanmar also yielded records of at least 31 species of mammals, including tigers, Asian elephants, Phayre’s langurs and dholes. The region was previously out-of-bounds for scientists due to security and political reasons. Similarly, surveys in Thailand’s Eastern Forest Complex revealed the world’s second known breeding population of Indochinese tigers (Panthera tigris corbetti), making Thailand home to two breeding populations of this tiger subspecies.
2. Lost and found: Some species were spotted after decades
2017 was also a year of rediscoveries. A guard at a recently created amphibian reserve in the Cuchumatanes Mountain range in Guatemala, for example, chanced upon the brilliantly colored Jackson’s climbing salamander (Bolitoglossa jacksoni) more than 40 years after it was first recorded. A naturalist in India spotted an extremely rare cobra lily that had not been seen for nearly 80 years.
Scientists also reported the rediscovery of the Táchira antpitta (Grallaria chthonia), a plump brown bird that was first recorded during an expedition in the mid-1950s in a remote part of the Andes in Venezuela. In yet another expedition exploring the western Amazon, a field guide spotted the Vanzolini’s bald-faced saki (Pithecia vanzolinii), a large black monkey with a long fluffy tail and golden fur, leaping from one tree branch to another. This was the first living evidence of this monkey in 80 years, researchers say.
3. Papua New Guinea got its largest-ever conservation area
Last month, Papua New Guinea officially declared the Managalas Conservation Area, a 3,600-square-kilometer (1,390-square-mile) protected area in the country’s southeast, which stretches from near the ocean up into the mountains. Conservation organizations and local communities had been working toward this protection for 32 years. The Managalas Conservation Area hopes to protect the Managalas plateau from large-scale logging and mining operations.
4. Local researchers are taking on leadership roles in conservation
For decades, Western scientists have dominated conservation research in Madagascar. They have helped create and manage many of Madagascar’s protected areas and have played an integral role in defining the country’s conservation priorities. Some foreign researchers say that this foreign dominance has “limited the ability of biodiversity research to generate debate and influence Malagasy society more broadly.” But a series of programs, over the past decade or so, have aimed at boosting early-career Madagascan scientists and are now helping local researchers take on more leadership roles in conservation.
5. A U.S. subnational delegation bypassed Trump and committed to keeping America’s Paris goal
In June this year, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that the country would be pulling out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. He also said that his administration would not be paying for a pavilion at the U.N.’s climate summit held at Bonn, Germany, this year, that countries typically set up to showcase their climate actions. The U.S. federal government has sponsored such a pavilion for 22 years.
In defiance of Trump, a rival coalition of U.S. governors, mayors, business and religious leaders paid for, and opened, an unofficial pavilion dubbed “America’s Pledge: We Are Still In.” This delegation, representing non-federal actors in 15 U.S. states, 455 cities, 1,747 businesses and 325 universities, proclaimed its commitment to the Paris Agreement on behalf of the American people. Governor Jerry Brown of California and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg led the delegation.
“The federal government doesn’t decide whether or how the U.S. takes action on climate change,” Bloomberg said at a standing-room-only event on Nov. 11. “Those decisions are made by cities, states, businesses and civil society. The goal of the federal government is to support and coordinate those efforts. But if Washington won’t lead, mayors, governors and CEOs will. And there is nothing Washington can do to stop us.”
6. Philanthropists and companies made big commitments for the environment
With Trump turning his back on climate change issues, philanthropists and big companies stepped up to tackle the problem.
The Gates Foundation, for example, announced a $300 million grant to support agriculture research that would help farmers in Africa and Asia adapt to climate change. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation also announced a $600 million donation over five years, from 2018 to 2023, to nonprofits that are working on climate change solutions.
Other foundations have pledged their support for conservation efforts. The U.S.-based Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, for example, has announced $20 million in grants to local and global nonprofit organizations that are working in the areas of conservation, human rights and the environment. The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has announced a five-year, $50 million grant to address the environmental degradation of the Andes-Amazon region by ongoing infrastructure projects like roads and dams. At the same time, the Switzerland-based Oak Foundation has committed $100 million to support ocean conservation activities, including the prevention of illegal fishing, support for small-scale fishery governance, protection of marine ecosystems and livelihoods, and a reduction in the plastic pollution in oceans.
7. Indigenous land rights were granted to communities
Indigenous and rural communities in Indonesia are slowly reclaiming their ancestral rights to their land. In December last year, the Indonesian government for the first time recognized the rights of nine indigenous communities to the forests they have traditionally called home. This year, it granted land rights to some more indigenous communities. So far, the administration has restored the rights to 164 square kilometers (63 square miles) of land to indigenous communities. However, critics say that this falls short of what the country’s president promised in his 2014 election campaign. Indonesia’s main indigenous alliance, AMAN, is campaigning to reclaim rights to more than 6,600 square kilometers (2,548 square miles) of customary lands in the country.
In another rare victory for indigenous communities, Brazil’s Temer government, which has previously attacked indigenous rights, established the 12,000-square-kilometer (4,630-square-mile) Indigenous Territory of Turubaxi-Téa along the Middle Negro River in Amazonas state.
8. Large marine reserves were created
Niue, a small island country in the South Pacific with a population of just 1,600, established a new marine protected area that covers 40 percent of the island’s exclusive economic zone. Through the 127,000-square-kilometer (49,000-square-mile) marine reserve, the government of Niue hopes to protect its fish stocks and help reduce overfishing of threatened fish species.
In September this year, Chile announced a 740,000-square-kilometer (285,700-square-mile) marine reserve around its remote Easter Island. The Rapa Nui Rahui Marine Protected Area region is home to over 140 marine species found nowhere else on Earth, and the park will not allow industrial fishing, mining and other extractive activities. In October, Chile announced the creation of two more marine reserves. At 117,000 square kilometers (45,170 square miles), one of the new reserves covers the ocean off Diego Ramírez Islands, off South America’s Cape Horn, while the second protected area, at 484,000 square kilometers (186,870 square miles), lies around the Juan Fernández Islands in the southern Pacific.
Mexico has also announced the expansion of the Revillagigedo marine park to create the largest marine reserve of its kind in North America to protect sharks, rays, whales, turtles and other important marine species. At about 150,000 square kilometers (57,900 square miles), the park will surround four Revillagigedo Islands.
9. New technologies are boosting conservation efforts
This year we saw the ever-increasing potential of technology to improve conservation monitoring and efforts. The international Barcode of Life initiative, for example, has developed a new LifeScanner Lab-In-A-Box portable DNA barcoding kit that can be used by rangers, police and port-of-entry officials to rapidly identify the species of plant and animal samples found on suspected smugglers. Another team has developed a handheld portable DNA sequencing device that allows it to identify plants faster than before in the field. Researchers have also adapted widely used technologies, like thermal imaging video technology, to detect the impact of white-nose syndrome in hibernating bats.
Advancements in technologies have boosted the involvement of non-scientists in conservation — from contributing to polar bear identification to counting trees and monitoring their leafing, flowering and fruiting cycles. Scientists are also developing better robots that could potentially help in monitoring wildlife.
10. See: The top 20 new species of 2017
2017 was an exciting year for species discoveries. Scientists reported a new species of orangutan, the first full species of great ape described since the Bonobo from the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1929. The newly described Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis) lives in Sumatra, Indonesia, and may be the most endangered great ape on the planet.
Expeditions across the world revealed many more species previously unknown to Western science. One team of scientists discovered 19 new species of geckos within limestone hill caves in Myanmar. Others uncovered 50 new spider species in Australia, several new species of frogs in India, and two primates: a new species of dwarf lemur in Madagascar, and a new species of bushbaby in the forests of Angola.