A white rhino adult and child stand side by side

The largest translocation of rhinos took place in 2021, with 30 individuals being moved from South Africa to Rwanda. Image © Peter van Dam/Shutterstock

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The conservation success stories of 2021

With much of the world staying indoors because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a difficult year to help save the wildlife that live all over our planet.

Despite these challenges, scientists, activists and members of the public from around the world fought, through vital conservation work, to ensure that 2021 won't be remembered as all bad.

Though 2021 may have had its share of bad news, it has been a year where nature has once again been at the fore.

From the COP26 climate summit to the launch of the Biodiversity Trends Explorer, the world's flora and fauna have become a hot topic as a crucial decade for Earth enters into its third year.

While there may be a lot that needs improving, there is plenty to celebrate this year, with some of the many highlights summarised below. These stories show that there is always optimism to be found in even the most forlorn situations.

The head of a female Swinhoe's softshell turtle semi-submerged in water

The discovery of a female Swinhoe's softshell turtle leaves the possibility that the species might be saved. Image © WCS Vietnam

Rediscovery round-up

New turtle reignites hope for species

A large turtle captured in 2020 has been recognised as the last female of her species, reigniting hopes that Swinhoe's softshell turtle can be saved.

After the last known female died in 2019, there were fears that the remaining male would die without reproducing. But after identifying a female, there are plans to breed the turtles to keep Swinhoe's softshell turtles alive.

Ghanian owl rediscovered by scientists after centuries in the wilderness

An owl lost to science for 150 years was rediscovered in Ghana after years of unconfirmed reports.

A photograph of Shelley's eagle owl was snapped in October, which scientists hope will add weight to calls to make its forest home a national park.

Butterfly rediscovered for second time

Conservationists hope that it's third time lucky for Catasticta lycurgus, a species of butterfly which has been 'lost' twice since its initial discovery in the 1870s.

The butterfly's high-altitude home in an isolated mountain range has made it difficult for researchers to access. However, after expeditions which discovered many new specimens, including the first-ever female, a detailed description of the species has now been published.

Extinct Australian mouse rediscovered on islands

An Australian rodent thought extinct for more than 170 years was rediscovered this year on islands off the nation's coast.

The Shark Bay mouse was found to be identical to Gould's field mouse, which was believed to have been wiped out after the introduction of invasive species to Australia by European settlers. Populations of the species have been established on multiple islands in Shark Bay to give it the best chance of survival.

'Most wanted' fish tracked down in Turkey

The Critically Endangered Diyarbakir Loach has been found after vanishing for almost five decades.

As part of a global programme to hunt down 10 'most wanted' fish, the freshwater species was found to be alive and well in streams north of the Batman Dam, which sliced its habitat in two when it was built in the 1980s. The hunt is now on for the other nine missing species.

A giant panda eats bamboo

Giant pandas were classed as Vulnerable by the Chinese government in 2021, following a similar decision by the IUCN in 2016. Image © asharkyu/Shutterstock

International initiatives

Panda conservation goes from strength to strength

Giant pandas have been downgraded from Endangered to Vulnerable by the Chinese Government, recognising their population growing from 1,100 in the 1980s to almost 2,000 in 2014.

While the same classification change had been made by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2016, the move represents the culmination of decades of focused effort.

Nations pledge to stop deforestation within a decade

Over half of the world's nations pledged to end deforestation by 2030 and begin the process of regrowing their forests.

A declaration signed at COP26 saw 104 countries, some of which have the largest forests in the world, commit to protect trees and develop sustainable agriculture.

Pacific nations to expand marine reserves

Four Latin American nations have announced plans to connect their marine reserves and create one of the world's most biodiverse areas of protected waters.

The Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor will join reserves from Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica and Colombia, spanning over half a million square kilometres and including wildlife hotspots such as the Galapagos.

Good marks for the Thames in first full check-up

The River Thames passed its annual health check, with a report from the Zoological Society of London finding significant improvements in its water quality.

Oxygen levels in the river are increasing, while species including sharks and seahorses now call the river home more than 60 years after the river was declared 'toxic' due to industrial pollution.

Largest-ever translocation of rhinos successful

The largest-ever relocation of rhinos has been carried out in Rwanda after 30 individuals were introduced from South Africa.

The white rhinos were released into Akagera National Park, with hopes to create a 'breeding stronghold' for the species and to extend its range northward.

First prizes to 'fix the planet' awarded

Projects to help restore coral reefs and rainforests were each awarded one million pounds as part of the first-ever Earthshot Prize.

Coral Vita was recognised for its contribution to reef restoration through demonstrating a fast method of growing coral in tanks, while Costa Rica's trailblazing work to reward landowners who protect rainforests was given funding to expand to new ecosystems.

Monarch butterflies fly in the air and land on a tree

Over 20,000 monarch butterflies were found during an annual count in California, giving hope the species may be rebounding after very low numbers were observed last year. Image © JHVEPhoto/Shutterstock

Life finds a way

Butterflies bounce back after difficult year

Populations of a migratory butterfly rebounded this year after fewer than 200 were spotted in 2020.

More than 20,000 monarch butterflies were counted in California's Pismo Beach in 2021, with hopes it may mark a positive turning point for the species.

Wildcats return for first time in centuries

Dutch conservationists have reported the return of wildcats to the Netherlands after being driven out in the Middle Ages.

Though individuals of the species, which diverged from domestic cats at some point in the past 500,000 years, have been spotted in the Netherlands from the early 2000s, the wildcats are now thought to be establishing populations for the first time in centuries.

Bumper beaver year in the UK

Record numbers of beavers were reintroduced to the UK this year following centuries of absence.

These conservation projects culminated in July with the first baby beavers born on Exmoor in over 400 years.

Species find new homes during pandemic

When COVID-19 caused many of us to stay at home for much of 2020 and 2021, some animal species took advantage to expand their territory.

Greek researchers found that loggerhead turtles reclaimed breeding beaches normally occupied by tourists, and seabirds such as Arctic terns spread to new areas of the Farne Islands while they were closed.

Elizabeth Ann at 26 days old (left) and 48 days old (right)

The black-footed ferret, known as Elizabeth Ann, was cloned from an inidividual known as Willa who died over 30 years ago. Image © USFWS National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center, licensed under Public Domain via Flickr

Scientific successes

Cloned ferret offers new genes from old animals

An Endangered species of ferret was successfully cloned for the first time in February, with hopes the process could be used to bolster the species.

Elizabeth Ann was cloned from a black-footed ferret which died over 30 years ago. While cloning won't save the species alone, it is anticipated these reborn individuals will inject vital genetic diversity into the population.

Mystery of New Zealand parrot's breeding solved

A breakthrough in why eggs from one of the world's most endangered birds fail to hatch could provide a lifeline for the species.

Researchers found that kākāpō embryos were failing early in development as a likely result of genetic issues, with conservationists now better able to plan a breeding programme to save the birds.

Colossal catalogue of Colombian butterflies completed

Scientists completed an enormous inventory of Colombia's butterflies, which contains all 3,642 species found to date.

Colombia is home to around a fifth of the world's butterfly species, with the new list hoping to aid conservation efforts and inspire new entomology enthusiasts.

Burrowing parrots tunnel to safety

A rare parrot which was on the brink of extinction 35 years ago now numbers over 4,000 individuals.

Only 217 of Chile's burrowing parrot were found in the 1980s, triggering the introduction of a conservation programme to save the subspecies. This initiative has since become one of the country's most successful, with hopes the birds will begin to recolonise their former breeding grounds.

A baby gorilla clings onto its mother's back in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

Some of the investors who profited from a short squeeze on Gamestop shares donated to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. Image © Claire E Carter/Shutterstock

And finally…

Gorillas profit from Gamestop shares

Over $200,000 (~£150,000) was donated to a conservation charity following a high-profile surge in the value of the company Gamestop.

A high volume of share purchases caused a brief but sharp rise in the value of the firm's shares, known as a short squeeze. Some of those who profited from the investment donated their proceeds to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund to help it continue its conservation work.