The sixth mass extinction of earth’s wildlife is already underway, according to experts. From mountain chickens (a type of frog!) to Malaysian giant turtles, The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) red list of 42,000 endangered species threatened with extinction only seems to be growing.
Whether they’re charismatic megafauna like African Forest elephants or an anonymous mussel, each plays a critical role within their ecosystems, and ultimately, our own future. Threatened by climate change, loss and fragmentation of habitat and illegal poaching, the survival of these vulnerable animals hangs in the balance. But some extraordinary conservation efforts are eliciting hope and optimism for some species that could claw their way back from the brink of extinction…
Asia’s Real-Life Unicorn: Saola
Pronounced ‘sow-la’, these elusive and rarely-seen antelope have only been known to science since 1992, and yet their numbers are already estimated to be down to double digits.
Native to Vietnam and Laos’ Annamite Mountain Range, these Asian Unicorns’ (as they’re also known) forest home has been fragmented by the Ho Chi Minh Highway and encroaching agriculture. Meanwhile, their 20-inch-long horns are a prized trophy among locals, who indiscriminately maim or fatally wound saolas in snares intended for other animals. With not one of these mysterious mammals in captivity, tragically, they’re on track to vanish by 2050.
A One-of-a-Kind Reptile: Gharial
The nearest surviving relatives of dinosaurs, these pescatarian crocs are distinguished by their slender, fish-catching snouts. Once widespread across Southern Asia, they’ve suffered a population decline of 98 per cent in less than a century, with just 650 gharials clinging to survival in pockets of Nepal and northern India.
Historically hunted for their skins, now it’s their freshwater habitats – degraded by sand mining, pollution and dam building – that are failing them. But have gharials still got some bite left? Following the successes of Nepal’s Chitwan National Park’s breeding centre, Pakistan is planning to reintroduce the apex predator to its rivers after a three-decade-long absence.
Africa’s Great Ape: Cross River Gorilla
While their western lowland gorilla relatives are faring better, this subspecies of the western gorilla – which were presumed extinct in the 1950s – total a feeble 300. They are protected by law, but Cross River Gorillas are feeling pressure on all sides.
Cocoa cultivation, illegal logging and human settlements are squeezing them out of their highland forest home range in the transboundary region of Nigeria and Cameroon. Pushing these vulnerable primates even closer to humans (their closest living relative) risks the transmission of diseases like Ebola and anthrax, which could rip through the eleven troops that remain in the wild.
The World’s Largest Pollinator: Black-and-white ruffed lemur
Known for their raucous calls and bright yellow eyes, these arboreal acrobats are endemic to the eastern coastal rainforests of Madagascar, where one in three lemurs are critically endangered.
Gemstone mining, logging and slash-and-burn agriculture has already razed 90 per cent of the Indian Ocean Nation’s native forest. Being active in the daytime makes black-and-white ruffed lemurs easy targets, fuelling the country’s illegal pet trade. In just two short decades, their population has been whittled down to 20 per cent what it was. The wider ecosystem depends on them, too. Critical to plant survival, these charismatic species transfer pollen by sticking their long noses into the flowers of the native travellers’ palm.
The Rarest Large Mammal On Earth: Javan Rhino
Already vanquished from Vietnam by poachers, 76 of these one-horned wonders – which are smaller than their African cousins – live in the lowland tropical rainforests of Java’s Ujung Kulon National Park (UKNP) on the Indonesian island’s south-western tip.
Trophy hunted during colonial times, their newest nemesis is actually a plant. UKNP’s invasive Arenga palm is crowding out native species which constitute these herbivorous creatures’ diet. There’s not a single Javan Rhino in captivity and the question is: can they escape the same fate that their northern white and western black African friends succumbed to? With two new rhino calves born in January and round-the-clock surveillance, these gentle beasts still have a fighting chance.
The World’s Only Flightless Parrot: Kākāpō
With owl-like faces and a duck-like waddle, these mossy green birds are the oddities of the avian world. The kākāpō looked extinction in the eye back in 1995 when their numbers plummeted to just 50 in their native New Zealand where these forest-dwelling living fossils once flourished.
Egg and chick eating invasive species like rats and cats – first introduced by the Māori in the 14th century and European immigrants 500 years later – have been their undoing. A stable but scanty population of 248 kākāpō (strapped with radio transmitter backpacks) now inhabit five predator-free offshore islands as part of the New Zealand Government’s recovery programme.
A Big Cat with Big Problems: Sunda Island Tiger
Restricted to the tropical Indonesian island of Sumatra, these white-bearded, dark-orange furred big cats once prowled proudly across the country’s Sunda Islands. The world’s smallest tiger subspecies, just 250 remain in the wild.
Edging these apex predators closer to extinction is habitat loss and hunting. Clearing forest for palm oil destroyed 20 per cent of their habitat between 2000 and 2012, while an estimated 40 are slaughtered every year by poachers according to TRAFFIC, an NGO tackling the illegal global trade in wild species. Disconcertingly, human-tiger conflict – particularly from farmers who’ve lost livestock – continues to drive their population decline.
The World’s Rarest Marine Mammal: Vaquita
With fewer than 10 known individuals left, time is running out for these pocket-sized porpoises, which measure just five-feet long. They’re endemic to Mexico’s northern Gulf of California (also called the Sea of Cortez), which despite its ‘Aquarium of the World’ nickname, has been plagued by illegal gillnets.
Stretching the length of several football pitches, these vaquita death-traps are intended for totoaba fish, dubbed the ‘cocaine of the sea.’ Also critically endangered, totoabas’ sought-after swim bladders, which help with buoyancy, command up to $80,000 per kilogram in China.
In traditional Chinese medicine, these swim bladders, known as ‘fish maws’ are falsely believed to have numerous health benefits, including promoting longevity and vitality. In some encouraging news, a research expedition vessel manned by Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has reported sighting an estimated 10 vaquitas as recently as May.
The Unsung Heroes of the Skies: Hoverfly
Essential for the proper functioning of all ecosystems, insects are sorely overlooked. Often mistaken for a honeybee, the humble hoverfly plays one of the most critical roles in our world’s food security.
Vital for pollinating crops, as well as naturally controlling the population of aphids and recycling decaying vegetation, these industrious insects are found on every continent apart from Antarctica.
But a staggering one third of our world’s 6,000 hoverfly species are threatened with extinction, with climate change, pesticides and the loss of larvae habitats like ancient woodland being blamed. Yet there is hope for our hovering, stingless friends, with reintroduction projects filling our skies with species like Scotland’s critically endangered pine hoverflies in the Cairngorms National Park, after a decade-long hiatus.
The Smallest Sea Turtle on Earth: Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle
A firm fixture on IUCN’s Endangered Species List since 1970, turning around the fate of these tiny turtles is a gargantuan task. Over-harvesting of their eggs in the mid-1900s and suffocating in shrimpers’ nets has led them to being the world’s most critically endangered species of sea turtle.
They were showing signs of rebounding until the Gulf of Mexico’s catastrophic crude oil spill killed untold numbers of marine life in 2010. Although Kemp’s ridleys can swim as far north as North Carolina and right down to southern Brazil, they only lay their eggs in southern Texas and along Northern Mexico’s Caribbean shores. Their daylight nesting habits make them even more vulnerable to predators but a robust bi-national conservation effort is at least making strides to safeguard the 9,000 that remain.