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10 of the Most Famous Endangered Species
Since planet Earth first formed and was able to sustain life, there have been five major extinction events, where up to 80% of all life on the planet suddenly or slowly became extinct. Many scientists believe that we are now amidst the Sixth Mass Extinction, also known as the Anthropocene Extinction. As the name suggests, this time it is humans that are driving the extinction of so many life forms. Hunting, destroying and burning habitats such as forests to grow palm oil and crops to feed farm animals, encroaching on former wilderness to establish farms, towns and cities, overfishing, pollution, causing climate change through use of fossil fuels and cattle farming … the list is long and depressing.
Perhaps the most famous animal to have become extinct through human action is the dodo, a large flightless bird living on the island of Mauritius, with no predators until sailors set foot on the island in the early 1600s. Thanks to them being easily hunted and killed for food, and the intruduction of alien species who ate the dodos’ eggs, such as pigs, rats and monkeys, within 80 years the dodo became irrevocably extinct.
What we are learning is that every living being, from elephants to dung beetles, from blue whales to tiny plankton, is necessary to sustain the balance of complex ecosystems and keep them healthy. While we focus on mostly large, iconic animals whose survival is threatened mostly by direct or indirect human action, we should remember that plants, insects and even micro-organisms also have a role to play in sustaining the environment productive, and should be protected.
These slow, shy, nocturnal animals covered in large overlapping scales are the most trafficked mammals on Earth with more than 1 million pangolins have been filled and sold over the past 10 years. Also known as scaly anteaters, they are found in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Besides being hunted for their meat, they are also killed for their scales, blood and foetuses, believed to have healing properties in Chinese traditional medicine and magical properties in African traditional medicine and witchcraft. Their scales are made of keratin, as are rhino horns – the same stuff that human hair and fingernails are made from, which has absolutely no medicinal value at all! Nevertheless pangolins are being hunted to extinction by poachers, as are rhinos, with the Northern white rhino subspecies now officially extinct as well as the Western Black rhino subspecies. The Chinese pangolin population has declined by 80% of in the last 20 years, due to being poached/hunted for ‘medicine’ and meat, which is considered a delicacy among the rich.
Pangolin facts: Pangolin species vary in size from about 1.6kg up to 33kg. They vary in color from light to yellowish brown to olive and dark brown. Pangolins roll up in a tight ball when they are threatened. Their scales can cause painful cuts to any animal (or human) who tries to stick a paw or finger between its scales. They can also emit a very nasty smell like a skunk to deter predators. World Pangolin Day is observed on 19 February each year.
Of the five species of rhino, three are on the endangered list: black rhino (in Africa) plus the Javan and Sumatran rhino. While only 67 Javan rhino remaining, they are at least in one location and have a healthy breeding population and can be effectively guarded and monitored. The Sumatran rhino population, estimated at about 80 individuals, is spread over small pockets of forest on the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan in Indonesia, making conservation efforts difficult. Besides human-driven habitat loss, the main drive behind rhino population decline is poaching. Both African and Asian rhino are poached to feed illegal markets in Vietnam and China, where rhino horn is used as a health supplement, party drug and hangover cure. It’s even believed to cure cancer!
Rhino Facts: Asian rhinos differ from African ones in that they have skin folds which makes them look like they are armour-plated. The Indian one-horned rhino is the biggest of the five species, found in north-eastern India and Nepal. At the beginning of the 20th century, this animal was close to extinction, but successful conservation has brought their numbers up from 200 to 3,700 currently.
Perhaps not quite ‘famous’, but the vaquita porpoise is the most critically endangered mammal on the planet, with only 10 individuals remaining and a huge fight ongoing to save this precious creature. The vaquita (Spanish for “little cow”) is the smallest of the cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises), with a maximum length of 1.5 m, weighing up to 45 kg and is found only in a small part of the extreme northern part of the Gulf of California off Mexico.
The main cause of the vaquita’s demise is the use of huge floating gillnets up to 3 km long that indiscriminately catch anything swimming into their orbit. It is estimated that over 300,000 small whales, dolphins, and porpoises die from entanglement in fishing nets each year, making this the single largest cause of mortality for small cetaceans. Many states and countries have banned the use of gillnets, including Mexico. Sea Shepherd, an organisation that has its own ships and is run by volunteers, travels the oceans to prevent illegal fishing and picking up fishing gear and nets polluting the sea and causing the death of marine life. It has partnered with the Mexican government to clear the area of cruel gillnets.
Mountain gorillas can be found in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park and the Virunga mountains straddling the borders of Uganda the DRC, which is home to over 600 mountain gorillas. They are also found in parts of the Central African Republic the Congo Brazzaville.
For decades, mountain gorillas have been decimated by uncontrolled hunting for bushmeat and body parts for traditional ‘medicine’. Due to habitat loss and ongoing of human conflict in their habitat, their numbers plummeted, and they were considered critically endangered by 2008; however their numbers have improved and they are now listed as ‘endangered’. Not only gorillas are endangered in the eastern DRC, but park rangers who protect the gorillas in the Virunga National Park (where one-third of the the gorillas live) have one of the most dangerous jobs on the planet, with 22 killed over the past year alone. The area is teeming with up to 130 armed groups, each with their own grievances regarding land, access to resources, conflicts among themselves and with the government and local authorities. Human conflict has always been problematic in this area; primatologist Dian Fossy (of “Gorillas in the Mist” fame was murdered in Uganda at a remote research site, probably because of her crusade against poaching.
Hawksbill turtles are so named because they have a distinctive ‘beak’ like a bird of prey. The IUCN lists them as “critically endangered” They are found around the world in mainly tropical and sub-tropical waters. Since time immemorial, hawksbill turtles have been hunted by sailors for their meat, but also commercially for their shells. This species has provided the raw material for the decorative tortoiseshell items beloved by ancient Egyptians and Romans, right up to the Victorians and way beyond. Its use, from everything such as combs, boxes, inlays, spectacle frames and guitar picks continued until 1973 when this was banned.
Killed for their eggs, meat, skin, and shells, all seven species of sea turtles’ numbers have been ravaged by poaching.and over-exploitation. They also face habitat destruction of their beach nesting sites and accidental capture—known as bycatch—in fishing gear. Climate change also has an impact on turtle nesting sites; it alters sand temperatures, which then affects the sex of hatchlings.
Pygmy three-toed sloth
The pygmy three-toed sloth is the smallest of the three-toed sloths, and was only recognised as a distinct species in 2001. Its habitat is on the Isla Escudo de Veraguas, which has been separate from mainland Panama for 9,000 years. Famous for its slow movements, the pygmy three-toed sloth is ideally suited to life in the mangroves and is surprisingly good at swimming. The major threat to the pygmy three-toed sloth is habitat destruction (no guesses as to who is responsible!), reducing the size of its already limited habitat. Through the phenomenon of island dwarfism (whereas an animal becomes smaller over time to adapt to its small range – in this case between 2000-3000 years), they are now the smallest members of its genus. As they are so very slow, sloths’ main forms of defence are camouflage and stealth to avoid detection. Sloths have green algae growing in their fur which helps camouflage them from predators. If attacked, tough hides and a strong grip to help sloths weather an attack, as well as having remarkable self-healing properties.
Sloth facts: Sloths only descend to the ground when they need to urinate and defecate (the latter occuring only about once every seven days). Living as it does in mangrove swamps, this sloth species is a surprisingly good swimmer.
Snow leopards are without a doubt one of the most beautiful animals to grace the planet. Gigantic snow-shoe paws, a thick, luxurient coat, hind legs that allow it to leap six times its body length and a magnificent long tail that acts as a rudder, the snow leopard is perfectly adapted to the harsh conditions of its natural habitat. Snow leopards live across a vast area in northern and central Asia's high mountains, including in high alpine areas in the Himalayas, up to 18,000 feet in elevation. They are found in 12 countries, including China, Bhutan, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Russia, and Mongolia.
Snow leopards prey on wildlife such as blue sheep, Argali wild sheep, ibex, deer and other small mammals. They are capable up killing prey three times heavier than themselves The animals which snow leopards typically hunt—such as the Argali sheep—are also hunted by local communities, thus putting them in competition with fast-expanding human competition. Humans are the only predators threatening snow leopards through hunting, habitat loss, decline of natural prey species and retaliatory killings from human-wildlife conflict, poaching and climate change.
Snow leopard facts: Unlike other big cats, snow leopards can’t roar, but they do have distinctive vocalisations and can ‘chuff’ like tigers. Which they are more closely related to than other species of leopards.
There are two species of orangutans– the Bornean and Sumatran. Both have experienced steep drops in population – 100 years ago there were probably more than 230,000 orangutans in total, but the Bornean orangutan is doing somewhat better with an estimated population of about 104,700, but still classed as ‘endangered’. However, with only only 7,500 remaining, the Sumatran orangutan has a status of ‘critically endangered’.
The destruction of the tropical rain forest, particularly lowland forest, in Borneo and Sumatra is the main reason orangutans are threatened with extinction. Multinational paper companies have cleared forests to grow plantations, deforestation by logging is another cause and ‘slash and burn’ clearing at an alarming rate to replace virgin forest with palm oil plantations is drastically shrinking orangutans’ habitat year on year.
Orangutan facts: ‘Orangutan’ is derived from Malay words ‘orang’ – person and ‘hutan’ – forest. They are probably the most intelligent non-human primate and are know to use tools to access food, and make well-constructed nests in trees each night for sleeping. They eat mostly fruit and leaves, but also bark, honey, birds eggs and insects.
There are/were eight subspecies of tigers, three of which are now extinct. The remaining subspecies include the Bengal, Indo-Chinese, South China, Amur, and Sumatran tigers. Tigers live in a variety of habitats from the temperate forests of the eastern Russia to mangrove swamps in Bangladesh and western India, to tropical forests, grasslands and marshes of India and Indonesia. It is believed that a century ago 50,000 to 80,000 tigers roamed India alone. Today, it is estimated that there are only 3,500 tigers remaining in the wild worldwide.
Until it was banned, trophy hunting and a market for tiger rugs and coats threatened the tiger’s survival. Today, illegal killing for body parts for Chinese traditional ‘medicine’ and habitat loss through human encroachment drastically threaten the survival of the remaining subspecies. The Amur tiger is threatened because of poaching and intensive logging in its forest habitat.
Tiger facts: There are double the number of tigers living in cages in USA backyards than in the wild. These poor creatures are no help whatsoever in keeping wild species alive.
About a third of the world’s Asian elephants live in captivity, most in Southeast Asia. They are used for logging, tourist elephant back riding and religious ceremonies. The method of ‘taming’ them is cruel and elephants suffer greatly in captivity. Their mahouts control them by piercing their delicate ears with a sharp hook at the end of a stick, known as a bullhook or ankus. Ethical tourists would never ride on an elephant.
Wild Asian elephants are classified as endangered by the IUCN. Numbers have declined by 50 percent over the past 75 years, and there only an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 Asian elephants left in the wild. Because of their status, trade in Asian elephants and their parts is banned.
Elephant facts: African elephants are also critically endangered due to poaching for the illegal ivory trade, as well as habitat loss due to human encroachment. There are approximately 415,009 African elephants left, whereas there were 3–5 million elephants roaming the plains of Africa in the 19th century. Big game hunting and the demand for ivory (used in piano keys, billiard balls, ornaments and even false teeth!) led to the rapid demise of these gentle giants.