While the exact number of species that are lost to extinction each year is unknown, it is believed to be at least 200 to 2,000 species each year. This is an extinction rate that far exceeds the natural rate expected without human interference. Unfortunately, the human species is responsible for the vast majority of the species disappearing from the Earth.
Most endangered species are in this position due to hunting, poaching, habitat loss, pollution, invasive species, and climate change. Almost all of these causes can be directly traced back to human activity. Although laws have been enacted all over the world, for many species it has not made a big enough difference or the difference has come too late. Species valued in traditional medicines are worth enough money that the risks of being caught poaching are not a sufficient deterrent.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) keeps a red list of species that are considered threatened or worst. The category of critically endangered indicates that the species is at high risk for extinction due to limited range, population decreases and limited numbers of individuals left in the wild with further decreases expected. According to ARKive, another conservation group, the current list of critically endangered species includes 1,812 species of which 978 are plants (including fungi, algae, and lichens) and the remaining 834 are animals including both vertebrates and invertebrates. The relationship between plants and animals is intricate and a loss of one can easily spell disaster for the other.
Beauty Isn’t Everything
In September, 2012 the IUCN and Zoological Society of London released a list of the top 100 most threatened species along with a document entitled “Priceless or Worthless?” which questions the importance placed on the value of some species. Although there are some species that are more endangered, many on the list are at higher risk because less attention is paid to them. Unfortunately, many of the top 100 species don’t fall into the category of highly important to donors. That is the spot often held by animals such as the giant panda and polar bear. But there are thousands of pandas and polar bears remaining in the wild. Many of the species in the document have only a few hundred or less known individuals in the wild.
For some species, such as the Table Mountain ghost frog, Nelson’s small-eared shrew, the saolo (an Asian antelope), and the estuarine pipefish, the number of individuals left in the wild is unknown. In other cases the numbers are known and are frighteningly low. For example the Red River giant softshell turtle has a wild population of four.
Although many species on the list will not be familiar to most people, there are also several that are well known or belong to well known groups of animals. Rhinoceros have been heavily poached for their horn. The Javan Rhinoceros has fewer than 100 animals left in the wild and the Sumatran Rhinoceros is in almost as dire a condition with less than 250 mature individuals remaining. The West African black rhino is believed to be extinct now. Also on the list is the vaquita, a porpoise whose main threat is drowning after becoming entangled in gillnets used by fishermen. There are fewer than 200 of these cetaceans left.
The Well Known Faces
Other famous species that aren`t on the list but are down to extremely low numbers include the Kakapo (a New Zealand bird, population 126), the golden headed langur (a primate, population 70), the Brazilian merganser (population 250), the Cross River gorilla (population 300), the right whale (population 350), the snow leopard (80-100 left), the Amur (far eastern) leopard (estimated to be fewer than 50 remaining) and the Amur (also known as Siberian) tiger (450 left).
Big cats have long held the attention of the world. A favourite with hunters for their beautiful pelts and often linked with traditional medicines, they are heavily poached. Although much attention has been paid to them, the question of whether it has come in time or will make a difference remains. There are fewer than 3,200 tigers of all species left in the wild. The last 30 years has seen a decline from 200,000 to 15,000 lions in Africa. Kenyan authorities have suggested that wild lions will be gone within the next twenty years.
Elephants and other species with long gestation and nursing periods for offspring face low numbers and a population that cannot replenish itself quickly enough even if an end to poaching occurs.
What Can Be Done?
Conservation methods and programs can only do so much. Zoos have also attempted to assist by providing captive breeding programs and reintroducing species to the wild. Although there have been many failures, there have been some notable successes too. The black-footed ferret was down to 18 individuals in the wild when zoos became involved. There are now over 1,000 wild black-footed ferrets. The California condor was in a similar situation with only 27 animals left. Today the population continues to slowly increase and currently numbers 192. Internationally, Przewalski`s horses were extinct in the wild and the only populations remaining were in zoos. Now, 300-400 wild horses exist. Unfortunately, these successes are difficult to achieve and are unlikely to be able to save the many species facing extinction each year.
People can reach out and support conservation groups that focus on high risk species. When doing so, try to remember the less beautiful but equally important species such as the vaquita and the many amphibians in need of assistance. Do not purchase items made from endangered animals, regardless of how legitimate the seller claims the item to be.
It is important to remember that the world is a giant ecosystem filled with many smaller ecosystems. Losses in any area can have global impacts and will undeniably impact other species. Although not all species are as attractive as the snow leopard, they are all still deserving of support and conservation measures.