According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, there are over 35,500 endangered species across the world (and counting).
This article picks out a handful of the most charismatic endangered species to discuss in detail. It is these ‘charismatic megafauna’ that conservationists tend to use for educational and fundraising activities, and so receive the most exposure.
Highlighting these species makes it possible to draw attention not only to their plight, but also to the broader need to protect habitats and ecosystems that contain numerous other species – many of which themselves are endangered but far less glamorous (Burton’s vlei rat, anyone?).
How do we know which species are endangered?
In 1964 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) established their ‘Red List of Threatened Species’. This Red List has evolved over the decades to become the gold standard for understanding the conservation status of all animal, fungi, and plant species globally, providing critical information about the range, population size, habitat, and ecology of all potentially threatened species.
Each year the Red List places species into one of nine categories: Not Evaluated, Data Deficient, Least Concern, Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered, Critically Endangered, Extinct in the Wild, and Extinct.
This article contains species from these two specific Red List categories only: Critically Endangered and Endangered.
Here are 11 of the most charismatic megafauna regarded as endangered today:
Critically Endangered Species
Critically Endangered: A species considered to be facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild.
Orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus)
Fossil evidence suggests that until 10,000 years ago orangutans lived across much of Southeast Asia – from southern China to Indonesia’s Java.
Today there are three species of Orangutan living on the large Southeast Asia islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Satellite imagery combined with nest counting puts total orangutan estimates at around 70,000, of which 80% live outside protected areas.
This extremely intelligent animal is critically endangered from the loss, degradation, and fragmentation of their forest habitat.
Saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis)
The saola is a large forest-dwelling bovine found only in the Annamite Range of Laos and Vietnam. It’s so rare it’s known as the Asian unicorn – and was only discovered by science in 1992 when remains were found in Vietnam’s Vũ Quang Nature Reserve.
The first photo of a saola was taken in 1999, captured by an automated camera trap set up by a joint WWF and the Vietnam government’s Forest Protection Department. Since then saolas have been kept in captivity for short periods, which allowed the spectacular nature of their discovery accessible to the public at large.
Because of its elusiveness, it’s difficult to put a number on exactly how many saolas there are left, but it’s safe to say that this beautiful animal is critically endangered, and one of the rarest large land animals in the world.
Snow leopard (Panthera uncia)
Snow leopards can be found throughout high mountain ranges in Central Asia, including the Himalayas and the southern Siberian mountains in Russia. It’s thought there are in the region of 6,500 snow leopards left in the wild, though because of their remote and mountainous terrain and solitary nature this number could be way off.
Snow leopards are apex predators and will eat almost anything they can catch, often hunting animals much larger than themselves. Their main prey includes wild sheep and goats, pikas, hares, and game birds. In some areas they rely on domesticated animals, leading to farmers shooting them.
Their largest threats are poaching and overhunting of their natural prey species.
Vaquita (Phocoena sinus)
The vaquita is an extremely rare dolphin species on the brink of extinction, with an estimated 12 living in the Gulf of California. Females are the larger of the two sexes, and grow to around 1.4 meters – making our list of the world’s smallest animals.
The biggest threat to vaquitas is from the fishing of totoaba, which uses gillnets vaquitas can get tangled in an unable to reach the surface to breathe. In 2016 gillnets were banned in the vaquita’s habitat, but illegal gillnet fishing continues, as does the incidental killing of the handful of vaquitas left in the wild.
Black Rhino (Diceros bicornis)
Black rhinos are smaller than their white rhino cousins. The most obvious difference between the two species is the upper lip – black rhinos have a hooked lip compared to the white rhinos’ square lip. As black rhinos are browsers rather than grazers their upper lip helps them feed on leaves from bushes and trees.
Black rhinos generally weigh 850-1,600 kg and in some exceptional cases, adult males can weigh close to 1,800 kg. They have two horns on their snouts the front horn is 50 cm long on average and it can grow up to 1.4 meters.
The number of black rhinos declined by an estimated 98% through the 20th century, caused by hunting by European settlers and big game hunters. From a low point of around 2,500 in the late 1990s, the species has made something of a comeback thanks to conservation efforts across the continent. They currently number around 5,600 – still critically endangered, but moving in the right direction.
Western Lowland Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla)
Although the most numerous of all gorilla subspecies, the western lowland gorilla is still an endangered species. They inhabit the remote, dense tropical rainforests of Angola, Gabon, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Equatorial Guinea.
Their remote and secluded habitats make it difficult to accurately estimate their numbers, but conservationists put the total population at almost 100,000. This number is known to be decreasing, however, with the animals threatened by poaching, disease, climate change, habitat degradation, and destruction.
Conservation in action
It’s important to remember that both the number and makeup of species classified as endangered evolves over time, usually increasing. The predominant reason for species extinction over the past few hundred years is increasing human-wildlife conflict, but there are some pockets of good news stories where species are actually removed from the endangered list.
One great example is the western South Atlantic humpback, where an estimated 2 million population were hunted to the brink of extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries for their meat, blubber, and oil. In 1986 a pause in commercial whaling due to low numbers was combined with a global ban on the trade of whale products and limits put on subsistence whaling. The result today is that western South Atlantic humpbacks are on their way back to pre-hunting numbers.
A similar story can be told for dozens of other endangered species, but by far the majority of endangered species continue to move towards extinction.
What did you think of this take on the most charismatic endangered species? Any animals that surprise you by making the list, or have you managed to see any of these creatures in the wild? Let us know in the comments section below!