New book review – ‘Back from the Brink’ by Malcolm Smith

Back from the Brink cover

Back from the Brink cover

Back from the Brink is a fascinating book covering a range of animals world-wide whose declines have been halted and reversed. They include Arabian oryx, black rhino, wild turkey, European bison, humpback whale, various species of vulture, mountain gorilla, whooping crane, Iberian lynx, Zino’s petrel, large blue butterfly and Mauritius kestrel. The author tries to get away from negative stories of endangered animals and their habitat and build on positives where there have been successes with animals formerly extinct in the wild and reintroduced from captive stocks, or where an endangered wild population has been successful in increasing through human intervention.

The chapters outline a first class ecology of the various species and reinforce the fact that before a species can recover the reason that it has declined must be accurately established. Many animals have declined through human persecution or degradation of their habitat. Some can be brought back from the brink by captive breeding programmes, by enforcement – or even strengthening – of protection laws or by bringing governments and private landowners on board to protect vulnerable breeding sites. Particularly fascinating is the story of the Zino’s petrel, one of the rarest birds in the world and where predation by rats and feral cats at nesting time brought it close to extinction. Since birds that spend almost all of their life at sea cannot successfully be bred in captivity, an extensive predator control programme was the answer.

In the case of vulture species in India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh, they very quickly declined by a staggering 99.9%. The cause of this dramatic decline was a veterinary medicine, Diclofenac, used to treat domestic cattle on which the vultures subsequently fed when the cattle had died. A ban on the sale of the product is making a difference, though versions for human treatment are still accessible.

There is a growing public interest and awareness of conservation requirements which is often central to initiating the measures to reverse the fortunes of animals that are critically endangered. I would thoroughly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in animals at risk on this planet. They can only become extinct once.


Back from the Brink, by Malcolm Smith, £18.99. Published by Whittles Publishing, Dunbeath, Caithness, KW66EG.

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