By Christine Dell'Amore
M. Sanjayan remembers debating grad school biology classmates about the fate of the California condor back in the 1990s, when the bird was on the brink of extinction.
Should the condor, which had almost been wiped out by habitat loss, hunting, and eating carcasses that were poisoned by lead bullets, be left to die in the wild?
Or should scientists take the remaining 22 condors into captivity and breed them, which would cost millions of dollars?
Sanjayan's view was that humans had a moral responsibility to save North America's largest flying bird.
That's exactly what happened: Captive-born condors were reintroduced into the western United States in the early 1990s. There are now more than 200 in California, Arizona, and northern Mexico.
On a recent trip to the Grand Canyon, Sanjayan—now the lead scientist at the Nature Conservancy—looked up and spied one of the big black birds soaring above.
"That's pretty incredible if you think about it," he says. "They're really out there in the wild now." (See "Banning Lead Ammunition Could Give Condors a Chance.")
The condor's recovery shows that endangered species can be brought back from the extreme brink. And there are plenty of other examples.
Gray wolves, which by the 1970s were wiped out of most of their North American range due to hunting, have bounced back to more than 3,500, thanks largely to reintroduction efforts. Northern elephant seals, hunted down to fewer than a hundred individuals, now number 150,000 along the West Coast.
But with dozens of new species going extinct every day—scientists say that more than 20,000 plants and animals are on the brink of disappearing forever—deciding which species to save is a tricky question.
This week, National Geographic will spotlight some of the world's most innovative and unusual efforts to save disappearing species, from the mountains of Tanzania to the plains of Missouri, in a series called "Last of the Last." More....