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8 Animals That Are No Longer Endangered

by Kirsten Howard

In September 2016, almost 50 years of constant breeding and conservation, the giant panda was removed from the endangered species list. Once a common sight in southern China, the panda’s number dropped dramatically due to poaching and skin trading until the 1980s, when the Chinese government began to cracked down on its persecution. Now, there are just under 2000 giant pandas left in the world—a 17 percent increase since 2002.

It’s not the first time a species has been dragged back from the brink. Here are eight other animals that have fought their way back from oblivion—with a lot of help from protected status, conservation laws, and dedicated biologists.

1. THE AMERICAN ALLIGATOR

It may seem ludicrous now that alligators are so plentiful in the United States, often turning up in gardens and on screen as a popular way to die in horror films, but once upon a time, the humble alligator was on the verge of extinction, thanks to the popularity of its skin as material for shoes, jackets, and bags.

During the late 1960s, the alligator was added to the Endangered Species Preservation Act. Twenty years later, they were well on their way back from their dwindling numbers, and in 1987 were declared fully recovered [PDF].

2. THE WHITE RHINO

South Africa’s white rhino went from discovery to near-extinction in just 75 years. In the 1800s, European settlers annihilated the population for sport, and the species was thought to be completely destroyed. But in 1885, 20 remaining white rhinos were discovered in a remote location in Kwazulu-Natal. They were protected and bred for more than a hundred years, and there are now a robust 20,000 white rhinos in the wild.

3. THE GRIZZLY BEAR

The undisputed apex predator of the western United States, the grizzly bear was once on the verge of disappearing from the country forever. In the 1970s, however, when it was discovered that there were only about 140 left, the grizzly was placed on the Endangered Species List in 1975. Now, there are around 1200 wandering around Yellowstone and the Rocky Mountain West—and about 50,000 in the world. They're doing so well, some say they should be taken off the endangered species list. 

4. THE SIBERIAN TIGER

The Siberian tiger—the biggest cat in the world, native to Russia, China and Korea—was heavily hunted until the mid-1940s, when Russia finally banned killing tigers. The Russian population has steadily risen from just 40 to around 500, but China and Korea haven’t seen one around for ages.

5. THE ISLAND FOX

The island fox, which is endemic to California's Channel Islands, suffered a 90 percent population decrease in the 1990s, when pesticide use wiped out bald eagles on the islands. Eagerly replacing the fish-loving bald eagles were their fox-hungry counterparts, the golden eagle—which quickly set about demolishing the cat-sized island fox.

It took a huge conservation effort to bring the island fox back from near-extinction, as bald eagles were reintroduced, golden ones relocated, and feral pigs spread around for prey—all while the foxes were bred in captivity to increase their numbers.

The operation has been enough of a success that three subspecies of island fox have been removed from the endangered species list. One remains on the list but has has been reclassified as "threatened."

6. THE GOLDEN MONKEY

Brazil’s golden lion tamarind makes its home in the Atlantic rainforest near the bustling populations of Rio and Sao Paolo. Consequently, the monkeys' numbers dwindled to around 200 after 93 percent of the rainforest was cut and cleared. Conservationists and government programs have struggled since the 1980s to boost the monkey’s numbers using a variety of methods, and the population has steadily risen to about 1000. However, the population must double before it'll be removed from the list.

7. THE WOOD STORK

A large American wading bird, the wood stork’s population has dropped by 90 percent since the 1930s, landing it on the endangered species list in. Thanks to cooperation between governments and conservation groups in restoring wetlands in the southern U.S., the wood stork population is back up around 6000. Its status was upgraded to "threatened" in 2014.

8. PRZEWALSKI'S HORSE

You might imagine there are plenty of wild horses roaming around the planet right now, but actually the horses we tend to think are wild are domesticated horses that have escaped or been released from protection. There is only one true kind of wild horse left on the entire planet—and that’s Przewalski’s horse.

Found as far back as 20,000 years ago in cave paintings, this horse is the ancestor of every horse we see around these days, but a combination of human domestication and environmental issues meant that by the 1960s, they were considered extinct. Just nine remaining horses from zoos have been used since then to recolonize their old habitat in Mongolia, China, and the Ukraine (where they can be seen roaming around the former site of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant). Today there are about 50 animals. With such small numbers, they're still considered endangered.

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Why Tiny 'Hedgehog Highways' Are Popping Up Around London
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Hedgehogs as pets have gained popularity in recent years, but in many parts of the world, they're still wild animals. That includes London, where close to a million of the creatures roam streets, parks, and gardens, seeking out wood and vegetation to take refuge in. Now, Atlas Obscura reports that animal activists are transforming the city into a more hospitable environment for hedgehogs.

Barnes Hedgehogs, a group founded by Michel Birkenwald in the London neighborhood of Barnes four years ago, is responsible for drilling tiny "hedgehog highways" through walls around London. The passages are just wide enough for the animals to climb through, making it easier for them to travel from one green space to the next.

London's wild hedgehog population has seen a sharp decline in recent decades. Though it's hard to pin down accurate numbers for the elusive animals, surveys have shown that the British population has dwindled by tens of millions since the 1950s. This is due to factors like human development and habitat destruction by farmers who aren't fond of the unattractive shrubs, hedges, and dead wood that hedgehogs use as their homes.

When such environments are left to grow, they can still be hard for hedgehogs to access. Carving hedgehog highways through the stone partitions and wooden fences bordering parks and gardens is one way Barnes Hedgehogs is making life in the big city a little easier for its most prickly residents.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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