12 Facts About Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone 30 Years After the Disaster

It was 30 years ago, on April 26, 1986, that disaster struck nuclear reactor number 4 in Chernobyl. At first, Soviet officials attempted to hide the cataclysmic events unfolding in Ukraine, but when radioactive clouds were detected as far away as Sweden, news spread that the unthinkable had happened: a lethal explosion at a nuclear power plant.

Residents at the neighboring workers’ town of Pripyat weren’t told of the deadly radiation covering their homes at first. As official buses began evacuating the area, people were instructed to bring only a suitcase, since they would be able to return in a few days. But as the extent of the explosion became clear, the Soviet military established an official Exclusion Zone, a roughly 18-mile radius around the stricken power plant. About 115,000 people were evacuated in 1986, and another 220,000 in the following years, creating a desolate landscape of abandoned towns and villages.

Thirty years after the disaster, much of the Exclusion Zone—now encompassing 1000 miles and also called the Zone of Alienation—is still strictly off-limits. The area remains a chilling reminder of nuclear disaster, while at the same time drawing thousands of tourists each year and demonstrating the resiliency of nature.

1. YOU CAN STAY THERE ...

Hotel Chernobyl. Alex Kühni via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Yes, there’s a hotel. It’s simple, best described as being in the “Soviet” style. According to the website Chernobyl-Tour.com, "visitors are provided with the iron-starched linen stamped by the Chernobyl special industrial complex." There is, however, Wi-Fi, enabling explorers the unique experience of being able to email friends and relatives from deep inside the Zone. The hotel is the only place for intrepid explorers to the Zone to stay, but its staff are only allowed to work on a strict rotation of 15 days in the Zone and 15 outside, to keep radiation levels to a minimum. Workers inside the Zone live in basic dormitories in the town of Chernobyl.

2. ... BUT YOU HAVE TO GET PERMISSION IN ADVANCE TO VISIT.

The first checkpoint. Alex Kühni via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Chernobyl is still impossible for tourists to get to without an official guide. There are strict military-style checkpoints at the 30km zone, at 10km, and at the entrance to the ghostly worker's town of Pripyat. Your name and passport have to be submitted to controlling authorities seven to 10 days in advance, and the guards check you and your passport numbers at each checkpoint. The early days of the Zone saw a large problem with local intruders who infiltrated the vast perimeter to ransack Pripyat and other areas, but since 2007 the Ukrainian government has severely clamped down on illegal intruders.

3. THE ZONE INCLUDES MORE THAN JUST CHERNOBYL.

The gymnasium at Pripyat. Photo by Luke Spencer.

Chernobyl was the largest town in what’s now the zone. Dating back to the 12th century, it was once a vibrant, largely Jewish town. The peaceful farming town, however, suffered at the start of the 20th century, when many of the inhabitants were murdered by first the Red Army and then during the Nazi occupation. At the time of the disaster, the population had increased, largely due to the nuclear industry, to approximately 14,000.

A deserted house in Chernobyl. Photo by Luke Spencer.

Today, the ghost town of Pripyat attracts the most attention. Opened in 1970, Pripyat was designed as a model example of Communist city life. It was also surprisingly youthful: The average age of the roughly 50,000 inhabitants of Pripyat was about 26. The now-empty town had a discotheque, gymnasium, movie theatre, sports field, and the famous amusement park. One of the most-frequented parts of Pripyat, according to tour guides there, was the maternity ward, with the youthful population of Pripyat producing around 1000 babies each year.

As roads have steadily deteriorated, the smaller towns deep in the Exclusion Zone have become cut off and remain mostly unvisited to even the seasoned tour guides. Across the border in Belarus, the effects of the explosion were similarly catastrophic, if not more so. An estimated 70 percent of the fallout descended on Belarus, contaminating approximately a quarter of the country. The most heavily hit areas in Belarus are now part of the 834-square mile Polesie State Radiation Ecological Reserve, a mixture of forests and deserted industrialized areas.

4. THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE WORK IN THE ZONE …

A worker in the zone. Alex Kühni via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Roughly 5000 people still work in the Exclusion Zone: mostly sentry guards, workers on the massive new sarcophagus, firemen protecting the still-volatile area from deadly forest fires, and service staff for the workers. Like the hotel staff, they live in the Zone on a rotation pattern of 15 days in, 15 days out, to keep their radiation levels manageable, staying in dilapidated concrete dormitories next to the hotel.

5. ... AND SOME PEOPLE LIVE THERE.

About 180 older residents also live full-time in the zone, having returned to their ancestral villages despite warnings from the Ukranian government, which has now largely allowed them to return to their homes to die in peace. A recent documentary, The Babushka of Chernobyl, tells their story.

6. SO IT’S NOT EXACTLY DESERTED.

Aside from the hotel, there is one bar, a post office that still makes one daily noon collection, and a supermarket, where produce is scarce but with the shelves are filled with alcohol. There is even a museum (never open) and something virtually non-existent in post-1991 Ukraine: a statue of Lenin. Because it remains frozen in time, Chernobyl is one of the few places where hammer and sickles can still be seen.

7. TOURISM IS BIG BUSINESS.

Nikolai, a tour guide in the zone. Photo by Luke Spencer.

The Exclusion Zone began allowing officially sanctioned visits, mostly for scientists and reporters, almost as soon as it was created. In recent years, tour groups have begun organizing brief, strictly controlled visits. One tour guide mental_floss interviewed, named Nikolai, says a couple has even gotten engaged on one of his tours. Beforehand, the proposer asked Nikolai if he could take them to the most contaminated area possible for the big moment. This year, the 30th anniversary, it’s thought that an estimated 10,000 visitors will step inside the Exclusion Zone.

8. THERE’S A CURFEW.

Inside Chernobyl, there is a strict curfew of 8 p.m. At night in the town square, one of the only things you can hear aside from the stray dogs barking is a strange sequence of rising electronic beeps coming from the forest somewhere to the north, which sounds a bit like the famous 5-note sequence in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A tour guide said they come from the scientist's camp, which is constantly monitoring radiation levels.

9. EVERYONE GETS THEIR RADIATION MONITORED—EVEN THE TOUR GUIDES.

Every visitor coming out of the Exclusion Zone goes through a radiation screening at each checkpoint. If your levels are too high, clothes and boots are either washed or left behind. Taking anything out of Chernobyl is forbidden. Tour guides like Nikolai are checked regularly, and say they don’t receive anywhere near the annual levels of radiation deemed too dangerous.

10. TOURISM THERE MAY NOT LAST.

Luke Spencer

Despite the growing numbers of tourists, the Zone is still highly toxic and dangerous. The landscape is dotted with warning signs indicating where the “hot spots” are. Walking around is for the most part safe, but the greatest danger comes from ingesting radioactive particles. Nikolai has had to warn visitors against posing for photographs licking trees, eating berries, and rolling around in the earth. He particularly warns against following in the footsteps of “Bionerd23,” who posts videos of herself online fearlessly eating Chernobyl’s apples. Radiation levels in many places are safe, but parts of the Zone, particularly near reactor 4, and in basements of buildings such as Pripyat’s hospital, remain dangerously high.

11. THE REACTORS AREN’T THE CREEPIEST PART.

The eerie Duga-3 radar base. Photo by Luke Spencer.

One of the most remarkable parts of the Exclusion Zone is southeast of the reactors: the eerie Duga-3 radar station. Once one of the most secretive spots in the old Soviet Union, this vast construction of antennae and aerials was once pointed in the direction of the United States, listening in for incoming planes and missiles. On maps, it was marked down as a children's summer camp, while the locals were told it was a radio tower. Around 1500 high-grade technicians, scientists, and military personnel worked and lived here, wrapped in the highest levels of Cold War secrecy. There was even a kindergarten. Today, there is just one soldier guarding the peculiar complex, the propaganda murals on the walls decayed and long-forgotten.

Inside the abandoned military compound of Duga -3. Photo by Luke Spencer.

12. THE FUTURE OF THE ZONE IS UNCLEAR.

The zone will continue to be contaminated by the radiation from the disaster for about 300 years. Without many humans around, wildlife has returned to the area, which now teems with foxes, wolves, lynx, boar, moose, and rabbits, among other creatures.

While some would like to turn the area into a nature preserve, its future remains a divisive topic in the Ukrainian government, with such plans under threat from Ukraine’s nuclear industry, which would prefer to use the toxic landscape as a fuel dump for radioactive waste. Today, Ukraine remains one of the countries most dependent on nuclear power for their electricity—which means all that waste has to go somewhere.

25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog

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iStock.com/Manuel-F-O

According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. Here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

1. Adopting a dog means you won't be supporting puppy mills.

A closeup of a dog's nose sticking out from between green bars.
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If you go to a pet store or to a disreputable breeder to buy that adorable puppy, it's entirely possible that it's from a puppy mill, where dogs are kept in terrible conditions. By adopting a rescue, you can help lower the demand for puppies from puppy mills.

2. You can find almost any breed you want.

A beagle puppy standing on a stone walkway.
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Is your heart set on a specific breed? There's a wide network of breed-specific rescues out there. Just spend a little time online and you can get the dog of your dreams without resorting to buying from puppy mills.

3. Shelter dogs are eager to follow your lead.

A woman holding up her finger to a dog.
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A 2016 study that appeared in Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research analyzed problem solving in dogs in homes (what they called "pet dogs") versus shelter dogs. The researchers found that although pet dogs are better at following human pointing, shelter dogs "seem to be more socially driven to gaze and interact with humans" when compared with pet dogs, which they say is likely due to the shelter dogs' "generally limited and poor-quality contact with humans." But the researchers also pointed out that with increased human exposure, the shelter dogs were trainable.

4. A rescue dog might help you get a date.

Two people from the knees down standing close together with a black and white dog between them.
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According to Slate, one survey found that "82 percent of people [felt] more confident approaching an attractive person if they had their dog with them." Another study cited by Slate found that in the modern world of dating apps, people with dogs look more approachable and happy than those who are dogless.

5. You can share your audiobook collection with them.

A young girl reads a book to her Pomeranian.
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There have been several studies on the best ways to calm dogs in kennels [PDF]. Classical music seems to work well, but a 2016 study found that compared to other "auditory conditions," kenneled dogs were more relaxed while audiobooks were playing. Cesar Milan then did his own tests and found that 76 percent of his volunteer dogs were more relaxed at home while listening to audiobooks—and teamed up with Audible to create a specialized audiobook service. Just be careful: soon your rescue pup will be better read than you.

6. Rescue dogs can transform in dramatic ways in a forever home.

A happy dog with his tongue out sitting in a field of flowers.
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Thanks to those heart-wrenching ASPCA/Sarah McLachlan commercials, everyone is familiar with how sad a dog can appear in a shelter. But once adopted, dogs' attitudes can change dramatically. In 2008, Italian researchers published a paper about a shelter dog named Daisy that they placed into a facility for people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Although in the shelter Daisy had groomed so much that she developed a skin lesion, in the six months that she lived at the facility, her over-grooming lessened, she was healthy, and she "displayed no aggressive or sexual behavior, even when in heat." And the calming effect seemed to go both ways: the researchers reported, the people in the facility experienced "many positive effects of Daisy's presence."

7. Shelter pets come with benefits.

A dog running through the grass with an orange ball in its mouth.
iStock

Whether you get your pet at a breed-specific rescue or from a normal shelter, you'll often have access to resources about your fuzzy new family member, and maybe even classes on how best to take care of them.

8. Shelter dogs are typically up-to-date on all their shots.

A vet giving a shot to a golden retriever puppy.
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Depending on the shelter, shelter dogs may already be vaccinated and microchipped (or the shelter will perform these services for a small fee)—which means you can get straight to cuddling your new pet instead of making vet appointments.

9. Shelter dogs may also already be spayed or neutered.

A vet looking into a dog's ear.
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More than half of states have laws requiring "releasing agencies" (a.k.a. shelters) to spay or neuter dogs they adopt out. While the pet sometimes isn't fixed until you adopt it, frequently it's already been spayed or neutered. Check with your local adoption center.

10. By adopting a dog, you're helping to keep the unwanted pet population down.

A lazy bulldog lying on a rug.
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If you happen to adopt a dog that isn't fixed, you can still help prevent pet overpopulation (especially in the wild) by keeping it in the house and away from other unfixed dogs of the opposite sex. (But seriously, get your pets fixed!)

11. Rescue dogs may be easier to housetrain.

A small dog holding a leash in its mouth.
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Many adult shelter dogs are already housebroken when you adopt them. But because the dog may have a history that prevented such training (such as never being allowed inside the house), you shouldn't go in expecting a house-trained pet. If your new pupper isn't house-trained, there are resources out there that can help you reach that goal; many say that adult dogs have an easier time getting the hang of it.

12. Adopt and older dog and you can skip the puppy stage.

A dachshund puppy plays with a shoe outside in grass.
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Yes, puppies are adorable. They're also full of energy and require a lot of time, training, attention, and patience. It can be tough to fit an energetic puppy into a hectic life. Adopting an older dog from a shelter allows you to skip the puppy stage altogether, which can mean an easier transition from not having a pet to being a pet owner. It also (hopefully) means you may avoid having your slippers, running shoes, pillows, furniture, and doors gnawed on by sharp little puppy teeth.

13. If you adopt an older dog, you'll have a better idea of their temperament.

An older dog sitting in the grass with his tongue sticking out.
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An analysis of many studies found that the "personality" of an adult dog is fairly consistent. Puppies, on the other hand, can change personality a fair amount, especially when it comes to "responsiveness to training, fearfulness, and sociability." So by getting an adult dog, you have a better idea of what the animal's personality is truly like.

14. A shelter can help match you with a dog that best reflects your personality.

A red haired woman holding a white dog, both laughing.
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Because adult dogs are generally more fixed in their personalities, many adoption centers have matching programs that help the process of pairing dog and human. The ASPCA claims the programs have dramatically improved successful adoptions at some shelters.

15. You'll feel more involved in the community.

A businessman walking his dog and talking to another dog owner.
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According to a 2013 study, dog owners over 50 who walked their dogs felt a higher sense of community. So adopting a dog can help you connect to your neighbors.

16. A dog can improve your health.

Woman working on her computer getting a kiss on the face from her dog.
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A study of Mexican dog owners versus non-dog owners found that the dog owners felt that they were healthier: "Compared to non–dog owners, the dog owners' scores were significantly lower for psychosomatic symptoms and stress and were higher for general health, vitality, emotional role, absence of bodily pain, social functioning, and mental health."

17. Your kids will play more if you have a dog.

A group of kids petting a dog.
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It's not just adults who experience health benefits from having a dog; another study found that child dog walkers played outside more and were more likely to walk in the neighborhood.

18. Adopting a pet helps small wild animals.

A dog looking for a squirrel up in a tree, but the squirrel is on the other side of the tree.
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As one of the most common predators in human areas, dogs can easily do great harm to local wildlife. By keeping dogs out of the wild (whether that's the city or the countryside), you can help reduce the numbers of truly wild animals that are preyed upon by what are supposed to be pets.

19. Adopting a dog can limit the spread of disease.

A yellow lab staring up at the camera.
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Feral dogs can also have disastrous effects on wild animals in regards to disease. For instance, the black-footed ferret was nearly driven to extinction by canine distemper. By keeping dogs out of the environment and up-to-date on all their necessary shots and vaccinations, adopters help many other animals, too.

20. You could have a movie star on your hands.

A dog wearing a bowtie, standing behind a slate for a movie.
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A surprising number of actual canine movie stars came from shelters. The original Benji was adopted from a shelter; Rudy, one of the 22 dogs that played Marley in the film Marley and Me, was just 24 hours away from being put down before he was rescued; and Spike, the star of Old Yeller, was adopted from Van Nuys Animal Shelter, supposedly for $3.

21. A rescue dog might have experience living in a home, making the move from shelter to your home an easier transition.

A dog on its back on a carpet.
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Some shelters have foster programs, where the dog is sent out to live with a volunteer in an actual house. Not only does this give the dog a chance to be away from the shelter, but it gives the humans looking after the pup a chance to see how the dog reacts in a less controlled environment—hopefully making the future forever home transition easier.

22. Even volunteering to foster has its benefits.

A woman walking a dog in the park.
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If you're not quite ready to adopt, consider fostering, which has a number of benefits for you and for the dogs you're housing. According to one researcher, overweight participants in a "loaner" dog walking program lost an average of 14 pounds because they felt "the dogs need us to walk them." Other participants in a community dog walking program were inspired to increase their exercise even when they weren't walking dogs.

23. You can help shelters modernize.

A chihuahua sitting on a cushion in an animal shelter.
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Shelters across the country are modernizing their facilities—which can sometimes be a very expensive prospect. The adoption fee you pay to the shelter to take your dog home will help the facility get the resources to give future dogs a better shelter experience.

24. By adopting a dog, you're saving at least one life.

A happy dog with its tongue sticking out lying on flowers.
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By giving a dog in a shelter a second chance, you can make sure it has a great life.

25. In reality, you're probably saving more than one life.

A dog running with a stick in its mouth; all four feet are off the ground.
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By adopting a dog, you open up a space in the shelter that can be filled by another future pet. And by supporting your local shelter, you help their mission to save many more.

But remember, a pet of any kind is a massive commitment. Some estimate that "more than 20 percent of people who leave dogs in shelters adopted them from a shelter." And studies have found that much of the problem is people not knowing what they're getting into. So make sure that you have the time and energy to devote to a pet, and do your research before adopting.

This story has been updated for 2019.

25 Species That Have Made Amazing Comebacks

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iStock.com/guenterguni

Conservationists can't afford to become complacent. When it comes to rescuing endangered species, progress is an ongoing effort. Still, we can take comfort in the knowledge that many organisms once on the brink of extinction or endangerment have made tremendous comebacks with our help. Just look at what happened to these 25 plants and animals.

1. THE BALD EAGLE

close-up of a bald eagle
Sherrodphoto/iStock via Getty Images

For much of the 20th century, this American icon was in jeopardy. Habitat loss, hunting, and the widespread use of DDT—an insecticide that weakens avian eggshells—once took a major toll on bald eagles. By 1963, the species population in the lower 48 states had fallen from an estimated 100,000 individuals to just 417 wild pairs. To turn things around, the U.S. government passed a series of laws, including a 1973 ban on DDT that was implemented by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These efforts paid off; today, approximately 10,000 wild breeding pairs are soaring around in the lower 48.

2. THE ARABIAN ORYX

an arabian oryx in the desert
Clendenen/iStock via Getty Images

The Arabian oryx is a desert antelope indigenous to the Middle East. Reckless hunting devastated the species, which became essentially extinct in the wild during the early 1970s. However, a few were still alive and well in captivity. So, in the 1980s, American zoos joined forces with conservationists in Jordan to launch a massive breeding program. Thanks to their efforts, the oryx was successfully reintroduced to the Arabian Peninsula, where over 1000 wild specimens now roam (with a captive population of about 7000).

3. THE GRAY WOLF

Gray wolf stalking prey in the snow
hkuchera/iStock via Getty Images

Even well-known conservationists like Theodore Roosevelt used to vilify America’s wolves. Decades of bounty programs intended to cut their numbers down to size worked all too well; by 1965, only 300 gray wolves remained in the lower 48 states, and those survivors were all confined to remote portions of Michigan and Minnesota. Later, the Endangered Species Act enabled the canids to bounce back in a big way. Now, 5000 of them roam the contiguous states.

4. THE BROWN PELICAN

Brown pelican
CarolinaBirdman/iStock via Getty Images

Louisiana’s state bird, the brown pelican, is another avian species that was brought down by DDT. In 1938, a census reported that there were 500 pairs living in Louisiana. But after farmers embraced DDT in the 1950s and 1960s, these once-common birds grew scarce. Things got so bad that, when a 1963 census was conducted, not a single brown pelican had been sighted anywhere in Louisiana. Fortunately, now that the era of DDT is over, the pelican is back with a vengeance on the Gulf Coast and no longer considered endangered.

5. ROBBINS’ CINQUEFOIL

Robbins' Cinquefoil
U.S.D.A. Forest Service, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Noted for its yellow flowers, Robbins’s cinquefoil (Potentilla robbinsiana) is an attractive, perennial plant that’s only found in New Hampshire’s White Mountains and Franconia Ridge. Collectors once harvested the cinquefoil in excessive numbers and careless backpackers trampled many more to death. In response, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service re-routed hiking trails away from the flower’s wild habitats. This, along with a breeding program, rescued the Robbins' cinquefoil from the brink of extinction.

6. THE AMERICAN ALLIGATOR

American alligator on a log
Joe Pearl Photography/iStock via Getty Images

With its population sitting at an all-time low, the American alligator was recognized as an endangered species in 1967. Working together, the Fish and -Wildlife Service and governments of the southern states took a hard line against gator hunting while also keeping tabs on free-ranging alligator populations. In 1987, it was announced that the species had made a full recovery [PDF].

7. THE NORTHERN ELEPHANT SEAL

Elephant seal winking
franksvalli/iStock via Getty Images

Due to its oil-rich blubber, the northern elephant seal became a prime target for commercial hunters. By 1892, some people were beginning to assume that it had gone extinct. However, in 1910, it was discovered that a small group—consisting of fewer than 100 seals—remained on Guadalupe Island. In 1922, Mexico turned the landmass into a government-protected biological preserve. From a place of security, that handful of pinnipeds bred like mad. Today, every single one of the 160,000 living northern elephant seals on planet Earth are that once-small group’s descendants.

8. THE HUMPBACK WHALE

humpback whale
miblue5/iStock via Getty Images

Did you know that the world’s humpback whale population is divided into 14 geographically-defined segments? Well, it is—and in 2016, the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) informed the press that nine of those clusters are doing so well that they no longer require protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The cetaceans’ comeback is a huge win for the International Whaling Commission, which responded to dwindling humpback numbers by putting a ban on the hunting of this species in 1982. (That measure remains in effect.)

9. The Fin Whale

Fin whale near Greenland
Aqqa Rosing-Asvid—Visit Greenland, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Commercial whaling decimated global populations of fin whales, the second-largest species of baleen whale on Earth. In the 1970s, international coalitions banned fin whale hunting in the Southern Hemisphere and the North Pacific, and legal catches were reduced in the North Atlantic in the 1990. Though three countries—Norway, Iceland, and Japan—continue to hunt whales for oil and meat, the IUCN reported in 2018 that the fin whale population has doubled since the 1970s.

10. THE WHITE RHINO

White rhino adult and calf
Marcello Calandrini/iStock via Getty Images

Make no mistake: The long-term survival of Earth’s largest living rhino is still very uncertain because poachers continue to slaughter them en masse. Nevertheless, there is some good news. Like black-footed ferrets and northern elephant seals, white rhinos were once presumed to be extinct. But in 1895, just under 100 of them were unexpectedly found in South Africa. Thanks to environmental regulations and breeding efforts, more than 20,000 are now at large.

11. THE WILD TURKEY

two male wild turkeys
Lois_McCleary/iStock via Getty Images

It’s hard to imagine that these birds were ever in any real trouble, and yet they looked destined for extinction in the early 20th century. With no hunting regulations to protect them, and frontiersmen decimating their natural habitat, wild turkeys disappeared from several states. By the 1930s, there were reportedly fewer than 30,000 left in the American wilderness. Now, over 6 million are strutting around. So what changed? A combination of bag limits set by various agencies and an increase in available shrublands.

12. THE BLACK-FOOTED FERRET

black-footed ferret
USFWS Mountain-Prairie, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

North America’s only indigenous ferret is a prairie dog-eater that was written off as “extinct” in 1979. But the story of this animal took a surprising twist two years later, when a Wyoming dog gave a freshly dead one to its owner. Amazed by the canine’s find, naturalists soon located a wild colony. Some of these ferrets were then inducted into a breeding program, which helped bring the species’ total population up to over 1000.

13. THE CALIFORNIA CONDOR

portrait of a California condor
SumikoPhoto/iStock via Getty Images

Since 1987, the total number of California condors has gone up from 27 birds to about 450, with roughly 270 of those being wild animals (according to a 2016 count by the FWS). With its 10-foot wingspan, this is the largest flying land bird in North America.

14. THE GOLDEN LION TAMARIN

two tamarins
Enjoylife2/iStock via Getty Images

A flashy orange primate from Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, the golden lion tamarin has been struggling to cope with habitat destruction. The species hit rock-bottom in the early 1970s, when fewer than 200 remained in the wild. A helping hand came from the combined efforts of Brazil’s government, the World Wildlife Federation, public charities, and 150 zoos around the world. There’s now a healthy population of captive tamarins tended to by zookeepers all over the globe. Meanwhile, breeding, relocation, and reintroduction campaigns have increased the number of wild specimens to around 1700—although urban sprawl could threaten the species with another setback. But at least the animal doesn’t have a PR problem: Golden lion tamarins are so well-liked that the image of one appears on a Brazilian banknote.

15. THE ISLAND NIGHT LIZARD

island night lizard
Ryan P. O'Donnell, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Native to three of California’s Channel Islands, this omnivorous, 4-inch reptile was granted federal protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1977. The designation couldn’t have come at a better time, as introduced goats and pigs were decimating the night lizard’s wild habitat in those days. But now that wild plants have been reestablished under FWS guidance, more than 21 million of the reptiles are believed to be living on the islands.

16. THE OKARITO KIWI

Small, flightless, island birds usually don’t fare well when invasive predators arrive from overseas. (Just ask the dodo.) New Zealanders take great pride in the five kiwi species found exclusively in their country, including the Okarito kiwi, which is also known as the Okarito brown or rowi kiwi. These animals have historically suffered at the hands of introduced dogs and stoats. But recently, there’s been some cause for celebration. Although there were only about 150 Okarito kiwis left in the mid-1990s, conservation initiatives have triggered a minor population boom, with about 400 to 500 adult birds now wandering about. Taking note of this trend, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has declared that the Okarito kiwi is no longer endangered.

17. THE BROWN BEAR

brown bear with three cubs
LuCaAr/iStock via Getty Images

Let’s clear something up: The famous grizzly bear technically isn’t its own species. Instead, it is a North American subspecies of the brown bear (Ursus arctos), which also lives in Eurasia. Still, grizzlies are worth mentioning here because of just how far they’ve come within the confines of Yellowstone National Park. In 1975, there were only 136 of them living inside the park. Today, approximately 700 of them call the place home. In 2018, the FWS delisted the Greater Yellowstone population grizzlies from Endangered Species Act protection, but reinstated them in July 2019 as "threatened" to comply with a Montana court ruling.

18. THE THERMAL WATER LILY

thermal water lily

With pads that can be as tiny as one centimeter across, the thermal water lily is the world’s smallest water lily. Discovered in 1985, it was only known to grow in Mashyuza, Rwanda, where it grew in the damp mud surrounding the area’s hot spring. Or at least it did. The thermal water lily seems to have disappeared from its native range. Fortunately, before the species went extinct in the wild, some seeds and seedlings were sent to London’s Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. There, horticulturalists figured out a way to make the lilies flower in captivity, and managed to saved the species.

19. THE PEREGRINE FALCON

Peregrine falcon
ca2hill/iStock via Getty Images

When a peregrine falcon dives toward its airborne prey, the bird-eating raptor has been known to hit speeds of up to 242 miles per hour. The species endured a plummet of a different sort when DDT dropped its population. In the first few decades of the 20th century, there were around 3900 breeding pairs in the United States. By 1975, the number of known pairs had been whittled down to 324. Things got better after the insecticide was banned, and according to the FWS, somewhere between 2000 and 3000 peregrine falcon pairs currently patrol the skies in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

20. PRZEWALSKI'S HORSE

Przewalski's horse in autumn field
Nemyrivskyi Viacheslav/iStock via Getty Images

There are a few different subspecies of wild horse, all of which are endangered. One variant is the Przewalski's horse (Equus ferus perzewalskii) from Mongolia. It completely vanished from that nation during the 1950s, but by then assorted zoos around the world had started breeding them. From 1992 to 2004, some 90 captive-born horses were released into Mongolia. They thrived and around 300 are living in their native habitat today, while other populations have been successfully introduced in Hungary and Russia (including in the Chernobyl exclusion zone).

21. THE NORTH AMERICAN BEAVER

North American beaver
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No one knows how many hundreds of millions [PDF] of these buck-toothed rodents were living on the continent before European fur traders showed up. But after two centuries of over-trapping, spurred by the lucrative pelt trade, the number of North American beavers had shrunk to an abysmal 100,000 in 1900. Their fortunes reversed when restocking programs were implemented in the U.S. and Canada. Nowadays, somewhere between 10 and 15 million beavers live in those countries. Thanks to beaver's amazing landscaping talents, many property owners have come to see them (unfairly) as pests.

22. THE CAFÉ MARRON

Cafe Marron tree
Abu Shawka, Wikimedia Commons // CC0 1.0

Rodrigues Island in the Indian Ocean once gave biologists a chance to raise the (near) dead. This landmass is the home of a small tree with star-shaped flowers called the café marron. It was thought that the plant had long since died out when a single specimen was found by a schoolboy named Hedley Manan in 1980. As the only surviving member of its species known to humankind, that lone plant assumed paramount importance. Cuttings from the isolated café marron were used to grow new trees at England’s Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. Right now, there are more than 50 of these plants—and all of them can have their ancestry traced straight back to that one holdout tree.

23. THE WEST INDIAN MANATEE

Manatee with fish
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A docile, slow-moving marine mammal with a taste for sea grasses, the Floridian subspecies of the West Indian manatee is a creature that does not react well to razor-sharp propellers. Collisions with boats are a significant threat, and the danger won’t go away altogether. Still, the passage of tighter boating regulations has helped the Sunshine State rejuvenate its manatee population, which has more than tripled since 1991.

24. THE BURMESE STAR TORTOISE

Burmese star tortoise
LagunaticPhoto/iStock via Getty Images

The pet trade did a number on these guys. Beginning in the 1990s, wildlife traffickers harvested Burmese star tortoises until they effectively became “ecologically extinct” in their native Myanmar. Luckily, conservationists had the foresight to set up breeding colonies with specimens who’d been confiscated from smugglers. The program started out with fewer than 200 tortoises in 2004; today, it has more than 14,000 of them. “Our ultimate objective is to have about 100,000 star tortoises in the wild,” Steve Platt, a herpetologist who’s been taking part in the initiative, said in a Wildlife Conservation Society video.

25. THE GIANT PANDA

panda in tree
DennisvandenElzen/iStock via Getty Images

Here we have it: the poster child for endangered animals everywhere … except that the giant panda is no longer endangered. In 2016, the IUCN changed its status from “endangered” to “vulnerable.” There’s still a chance that we could lose the majestic bamboo-eater once and for all someday, but the last few years have offered a bit of hope. Between 2004 and 2014, the number of wild pandas increased 17 percent. The welcome development was made possible by enacting a poaching ban and establishing new panda reserves. It’s nice to know that, with the right environmental policies, we can make the future brighter for some of our fellow creatures.

This story first ran in 2017.

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