Behold: the Fearsome Creature That Battled Back From Near Extinction

It’s not often enough that there’s a great conservation story, one that culminates in a fairytale ending. Poaching, deforestation and pollution often mean a steady stream of unnerving stories about our planet’s disappearing wildlife. But today, there is a singular triumph. And though it may be related to a tiny, and not altogether well-known creature, we will happily celebrate this victory.

California’s dwarf fox is among North America’s rarest mammals. Native to six of the Channel Islands, the fox was just about written off as extinct by the mid-1990s—with numbers as low as 15 in some areas.

But today the tiny fox population is in the 2,500 range, which National Geographic reports is, “one of the fastest [recoveries] in the history of the Endangered Species Act.”

Timothy Coonan, with the U.S. National Park Service, reported that the dwarf foxes, “were listed as endangered in 2004, and they’re pretty much ready to come off that list at this point.”

It seems almost unbelievable, but the creature’s dramatic journey is simply an example of the normal flow of an ecosystem. Some decades ago, the islands’ numerous bald eagle populations died off considerably due to the proliferation of toxic DDT insecticides.

Their absence allowed golden eagles to move into the skies above the Channel Islands, where they rapidly asserted their dominance in the food chain, swooping down to make quick meals of the island’s feral pigs, grazing sheep and dwarf foxes.

To combat the onslaught, in 2004 the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy established several captive breeding programs to revive the animal. But they also hired hunters to thin out the islands’ pigs and sheep, and used their own officers to capture and relocate golden eagles back to the mainland.

Still, even with those comprehensive efforts, no one expected the dwarf fox to bounce back so quickly. Santa Rosa Island, for instance, where just 15 of the species remained several years ago, is now home to 600 of them.

Coonan told National Geographic, “It’s a strange thing,” he said. “The official recovery plan has not even been finalized [by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service], and yet these populations are doing so well that they can come off the Endangered Species List.”

In the meantime, other conservation efforts related to the California coastline are a mixed bag in terms of their results. For instance, the area’s marbled murrelet is showing signs of revitalization after a unique program that teaches its predators not to eat its eggs. But more famously, humpback and blue whales remain locked in a struggle to regain any of their lost populations.

Still, one win, in the form of these little foxes, confirms that human intervention, when used wisely, has the potential to do just as much good as it can do harm.

What endangered species do you think deserve our urgent attention next? Let us know in the Comments.