- DigitalART/Wikimedia Commons
Every day, species around the planet are going extinct. And for each species that goes extinct, many more become and remain endangered due to habitat loss, poaching, human activities, and climate change. Some are so critical that they are teetering on the brink of extinction.
All these threatened animals are included on the International Union for Conservation (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, a non-prescriptive list that is the world’s most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of species.
“The IUCN red list tells us how close to extinction species are,” Craig Hilton Taylor, head Red List Unit of the Global Species Programme at the IUCN, told Business Insider. “It is a fairly coarse measure [but] we have a set of quantitative criteria that we try to rank species under, and if a species moves into one of the threatened categories – vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered – then we know that a species either has a high, very high, or an extremely high risk of going extinct in the wild unless we do something about it.”
For example, he said, polar bears are considered vulnerable to extinction, while tigers are endangered (a more critical category), and just this July, the IUCN declared that the Bornean orangutan critically endangered.
Here are 12 species at risk of extinction, including some that you probably didn’t even know existed.
The Bornean orangutan
- REUTERS/Tim Chong
Found only on the island of Borneo, Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) have a broader face and shorter beard than their cousins, Sumatran orangutans. This July, the IUCN changed their status to critically endangered because their population has declined by 60% since 1950, and, according to Scientific American, new projections estimate that their numbers will fall by another 22% by the year 2025.
The main threats for these animals are habitat loss (forests are turned into rubber, oil palm or paper plantations) and illegal hunting. Aggravating the problem, females only reproduce every six to eight years – the longest birth interval of any land mammal – which makes conservation efforts slow.
- Photo courtesy of Weidong Li
Ili pika (Ochontana iliensis) is a small mammal (only 7-8 inches long) that’s native to the Tianshan mountain range of the remote Xinjiang region of China. Living on sloping bare rock faces and feeding on grasses at high elevations, this little creature is very rare – there are less than 1,000 left.
The species was only discovered in 1983, but its numbers have declined by almost 70% since then, reports CNN. This is because its habitat is being drastically affected by climate change. Rising temperatures have forced the pikas to retreat up into the mountain tops. In addition, grazing pressure from livestock and air pollution have likely contributed to their decline.
- Bernard DUPONT/Flickr
Found only in South America, Giant otters, or Pteronura brasiliensis, are the largest otters in the world, with some as long as 6 feet. They are also the rarest otters in the world, with only a few thousand believed to be surviving in the wild. Sometimes known as the “river wolf,” their fur is chocolatey brown and extremely soft. They also have a creamy white patch on their throat that is unique to each otter, Meg Symington, managing director of the Amazon for WWF, told Business Insider.
“They are extremely smart animals, and sort of like wolves or lions, they can be cooperative hunters. They live in groups and they hunt fish together as a group, herding the fish,” she said. “They’re active during the day, so they’re actually a large mammal that you can see easily in the Amazon, which is unusual since a lot of large animals are hard to see in the jungle.”
Historically, giant otters were hunted for their pelts, causing a huge decline in their numbers. While they are no longer hunted today, they remain endangered because many of their aquatic habitats (rivers and lakes) have been degraded and destroyed, causing the fish populations they rely on for food to dwindle. They are many times viewed as nuisances by humans, especially by fishermen. They are also threatened by gold-mining in the region, which leads to mercury poisoning. “Because they are an apex predator, they accumulate mercury because they eat so much fish,” Symington explained.
The solitary and nocturnal Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) is one of the world’s most endangered wild cats. It has a thick yellow or rusty orange coat with long dense hair, and can weigh up to 120 pounds. It can leap more than 19 feet, and it can run at speeds up to 37 miles per hour.
Today, it is found only in the Amur River basin of eastern Russia, having already gone extinct from China and the Korean Peninsula. According to WWF, there are around 60 amur leopards left in the wild. The wild cat faces numerous threats to its survival, including encroaching human populations, poaching, and climate change.
As a member of the weasel family, the black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) is the only ferret native to North America. They have tan bodies, black legs and feet, a black tip on their tail and a black mask. They are highly specialized carnivores, with prairie dogs making up more than 90% of their diet. “Black-footed ferrets evolved with prairie dogs, so they are long and tubular,” Kristy Bly, senior wildlife conservation biologist for WWF’s Northern Great Plains Program, told Business Insider. “They evolved to be these ferocious little predators and they’re designed to navigate tunnels and boroughs.”
The main threats endangering these little carnivores are disease (notably the plague) and lack of habitat, brought on largely because prairie dogs were poisoned for a large number of years, eliminating their food source in many of their habitats.
“It’s kind of a miracle that ferrets are still with us,” said Bly. The black-footed ferret was twice thought to be extinct, but recovery efforts – notably captive breeding and reintroduction to the wild – have helped bring the animals back from the brink of extinction. Today, there are about 300-400 black-footed ferrets in the wild, all of whom are descendants of the 18 ferrets that were part of captive-breeding efforts in the late 1980s. Conservation efforts have also included vaccines against the plague.
Named after the famous scientist Charles Darwin, who discovered the species in 1834, Darwin’s fox (Lycalopex fulvipes) is found only in Chile in two places: the Nahuelbuta National Park and the island of Chiloè. Dark in color with short legs, this carnivorous creature is active mostly at twilight and dawn.
These carnivores creatures are considered an “umbrella species,” which means that protecting them and their temperate forest homes helps preserve the entire ecosystem. According to the IUCN, they are threatened by habitat loss, hunting, and non-native species, particularly domestic dogs.
As the only Asian rhino with two horns, the Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) is the smallest of the rhino family, living in isolated pockets of dense mountain forests in Malaysia, Indonesia and possibly Myanmar (Burma). They are recognizable because they are covered in long hair, which helps keep mud caked to their body to cool them and protect them from insects.
They are one of the most endangered rhinos in the world, along with the Javan rhino, with maybe only 220-275 Sumatran rhinos left in the world, according to WWF. Greatly threatened by poaching, they are, like other rhinos, hunted for their horns. There is no indication that the population is stable and only two captive females have reproduced in the last 15 years.
- Deepak sankat/Wikimedia Commons
One of three critically endangered species of vulture, the white-rumped vulture (Gyps bengalensis) has suffered what the IUCN classifies as a “catastrophic decline” across the Indian subcontinent, to the point that it is highly threatened with extinction. Over 99% of its population has been wiped out since the 1980s, making it the fastest decline of any bird species in recorded history, according to Mother Nature Network.
“Vultures are in a really, really bad way,” said Taylor from the IUCN. “But they play such an important role in the ecosystem.”In India, the vultures played a key role in cleaning up the remains of fallen cows and in doing so, Taylor explained, they were poisoned because they ingested the livestock drug diclofenac from the animal carcasses. The loss of vultures as a result of this drug has had a cascading effect, Scientific American reports, increasing the number of feral dogs, as well as spreading disease to humans.
Found in forests and grasslands, pangolins are solitary, nocturnal creatures with scales covering their bodies and long sticky tongues to slurp up ants and termites. They are about the size of a house cat, and look a little bit like artichokes on legs. When frightened, they defend themselves by rolling up into a ball.
These critters, found in Asia and Africa, are endangered because they are increasingly the victims of wildlife crime for their meat and scales. In fact, according to CNN, they are believed to be the most trafficked mammal in the world. It is estimated that 100,000 are captured every year.
- David Hulse / WWF
First discovered in May 1992, the saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) is often called the “Asian unicorn.” It is a rarely-seen, critically endangered mammal. In fact, it is so rare (and so elusive) that scientists have only seen it in the wild four times, according to WWF, causing us to know very little about the creature.
Both male and female saolas have two parallel horns on their heads, they have white markings on their face, and they sort of look like antelopes (though they are actually cousins of cattle). They live only in the the forests of Annamite mountains in Vietnam and Laos. According to the IUCN, saolas are threatened by hunting and the continued fragmentation of their habitat as a result of human activities, such as the building of roads.
- Paula Olson, NOAA/Wikimedia Commons
First discovered in 1958, the vaquita (Phocoena sinus), also known as the Gulf of California harbor porpoise, is the smallest cetacean – an order of animals that include whales, dolphins, and porpoises. Only about five feet long, this porpoise has a gray body, a pale gray or white belly, a dark patch around its eyes, and dark patches forming a line from its mouth to its pectoral fins.
As the world’s rarest marine mammal, the vaquita is on the edge of extinction: According to the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, only about 60 of these animals remain. This marks a 40% decrease in their population since 2014. These little porpoises are often caught and drowned in gill-nets used by illegal fishing operations within Mexico’s Gulf of California, according to WWF. Because there are so few left and they are confined to such a small region, they may also be vulnerable to climate change, as warming temperatures could affect their food availability and habitat conditions.
Peruvian Black Spider Monkey
- André Bärtschi / WWF
Found in eastern South America north of the Amazon River, the Peruvian Black Spider Monkey (Ateles chamek) spends much of its time in the canopy of the rainforest. Eating mainly fruit, these monkeys are an essential part of the tropical rainforest ecosystem, playing a role in seed dispersal.
Also known as red-faced or Guiana spider monkeys, their population is believed to have declined by at least 50% over the past 45 years, according to the IUCN. They are threatened by hunting, fragmentation, and the destruction of their tropical rainforest homes.