Educational Series: Critically Endangered Animals Need Our Help Before it’s Too Late

By Nick Engelfried
The world is facing a biodiversity extinction crisis unlike anything that has happened for millions of years. From climate change caused by burning fossil fuels, to the destruction of habitat to make way for agriculture and development, human activities threaten almost every major ecosystem on Earth and the species who depend on them. Globally, scientists estimate at least one million species of plants and animals are currently threatened with extinction, and the number continues to climb. Preventing a true mass extinction event from occurring is one of the central challenges facing humanity in the twenty-first century.

Endangered species occur across nearly every taxon, or group of related plants and animals. The creatures at risk include an estimated 12% of bird species, 21% of all reptiles, at least 40% of amphibians, and fully half of existing primate species. Without swift action, many of these animals will soon cease to exist–with serious implications for global ecosystems and people all over the world. The good news is there is still time to prevent the final extinction of the vast majority of endangered species. Doing so will require political will, funding for conservation programs, and fundamental shifts in how we generate energy, produce food, and consume natural resources. Still, the solutions are within our grasp.

The list below highlights a sampling of some of the rarest of the rare animals, all of which are in need of immediate help to survive.

Sumatran Rhino

Within historical times wild rhinos ranged across much of Africa and Asia, making them one of the most widespread groups of megafauna. Today, however, all five existing rhinoceros species are threatened with extinction because of habitat loss and poaching. The most at-risk is the Sumatran rhino, which was once found throughout much of Southeast Asia but is today confined to tiny populations on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo.

Fewer than 80 Sumatran rhinos are believed to exist in the wild today, and with such small numbers it’s clear why they are at high risk of extinction. However, the problem is compounded by the fact that surviving Sumatran rhinos exist in multiple geographically separated populations, each of which is too small to sustain itself over time. The only hope for the species appears to be a capture-and-release program that would consolidate most Sumatran rhinos into a single breeding population, including a captive breeding program capable of bolstering the species’ numbers.

A consortium of zoos and nonprofits are partnering with the Indonesian government on a final, heroic effort to save Sumatran rhinos from extinction–but these kinds of efforts require funding and public support. The US Tropical Forest and Coral Reef Conservation Act, first passed in 1998 and most recently reauthorized by Congress in 2019, has aided Sumatran rhino conservation and is an example of the kind of policy needed to save the species.

Spix’s macaw

In 2019, the International Union for Conservation of Nature made the sad announcement that the Spix’s macaw was officially extinct in the wild. However, that did not spell the end for this remarkable bird with brilliant plumage. A small number survived in captivity, and today most of these individuals have been brought into a captive breeding program focused on re-establishing a healthy population in the species’ native habitat in Brazil.

With a gray head and upper chest and brilliant blue feathers over the rest of its body, the Spix’s macaw is a truly impressive-looking parrot–-something that has long made it a target of exotic bird collectors. Poaching for the pet trade, combined with deforestation and degradation of the bird’s habitat by livestock grazing, are what led to the Spix’s macaw’s disappearance from the wild. While Brazil may be most famous for its lush tropical rainforests, Spix’s macaws are confined to a much drier habitat known as Caatinga in the country’s northeast. In recent decades, conservation groups have partnered with locals to restore this valuable ecosystem in preparation for the Spix’s macaw’s return.

In 2020, a group of 52 captive-reared Spix’s macaws were transported from a German breeding facility to Brazil with the goal of eventually being released into the wild. Today, a small population once again exists in the Caatinga. The Spix’s macaw is still critically endangered and its recovery from the brink of extinction has only just begun–but the return of this spectacular bird to its native habitat is a testament to what emergency conservation measures can accomplish.

Tapanuli orangutan

Confined to an area of less than 500 square miles in Sumatra’s Batang Toru Ecosystem, the Tapanuli orangutan is the most endangered of all great apes. It is also one of the most recent primates to be described by scientists, having been formally recognized as a distinct species only in 2017. Unfortunately, the rainforest habitat on which the species depends is under siege from a variety of threats–including the palm oil and other agricultural interests, as well the planned construction of a new hydroelectric dam. Today, only about 760 Tapanuli orangutans survive.

The Tapanuli is one of three known orangutan species, all of which are endangered or critically endangered and confined to either Borneo or Sumatra. Decades of rampant deforestation across Indonesia’s large islands by the agriculture and timber industries have been disastrous for all three species–but especially for the Tapanuli orangutan, which likely never had a large population to begin with. The decline of orangutans, a group of apes who share about 97% of our DNA, should be seen as a global wakeup call to protect the Indonesian archipelago’s remaining tracts of rainforest before it is too late.

Vaquita porpoise

At only five feet long, the adorable vaquita is the world’s smallest porpoise species. It is also the rarest marine mammal on Earth, with only around ten individuals believed to survive in the northern Gulf of California. Vaquitas likely never had a large geographic range, which wasn’t a problem until the arrival of modern fishing methods in the Gulf. Decades of intensive gillnet fishing in their habitat brought the tiny porpoise to the brink of extinction; although they are not a target species of the fishing industry, they can become entangled and drown in nets set for other marine creatures. Today, gillnet fishing is illegal in vaquita habitat–but their use persists, mainly because of poaching for the fish known as totoaba, itself a critically endangered species considered a delicacy on the Chinese market.

Rescuing a species with a population as tiny as the vaquita’s won’t be easy–especially because effective conservation measures must involve multiple countries. The Mexican government must increase efforts to eliminate totoaba fishing, while the United States has a role to play cracking down on the international trade in the fish. China can help by eliminating the black market for totoaba in its borders.

Recent steps by Mexican authorities to increase patrols for illegal gillnets seem to have had their intended effect, reducing totoaba poaching in vaquita habitat and providing a sliver of hope for small porpoises. However, the species’ long-term survival hinges on there being political will to continue such efforts.

Lord Howe Island stick insect

Large, charismatic mammals and birds tend to attract the most public attention to the extinction. However, plenty of smaller creatures are also at risk of disappearing, with dire implications for humanity. From bees who pollinate food crops to lowly beetles and millipedes who help maintain soil health, we are absolutely dependent on insects and other invertebrates for our survival. The fact that around 40% of insect species are believed to be in perilous decline should therefore be a matter of urgent concern for people everywhere.

An example of a critically endangered insect in need of help is the Lord Howe Island stick insect, also known as the “tree lobster” because of its long, stocky body and thick legs that resemble those of the marine crustaceans. The species, which is native to only a couple of small islands located between Australia and New Zealand, is a member of the stick insect family that can reach an impressive seven inches long. In 1918, rats fleeing a capsized ship escaped onto Lord Howe Island, the tree lobster’s main stronghold. Within a few decades, the big insects had completely succumbed to the voracious rodents, and were believed to be extinct. However, a fortuitous discovery revealed a tiny population of tree lobsters still clinging to survival on the tiny nearby island known as Ball’s Pyramid.

Today, captive breeding tree lobster populations thrive in zoos, and will hopefully be reintroduced to their native habitat if rats can be eliminated. If such efforts are successful, the return of the tree lobster will be a bright spot in the global pattern of declining insects.

Like the tree lobster, each of the species featured in this list can still be saved–but only with swift action from governments, scientists, and the public. Wherever you live, learning about and appreciating the other lifeforms who call our planet home can be a first step toward ensuring a future for animals everywhere.

Photo credit: wAlanb

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About what percentage of reptile species are threatened with extinction?
In addition to their namesake island, which additional island is home to wild Sumatran rhinos?
In what year were Tapanuli orangutans described by scientists?
Which of these factors is a threat to the survival of Spix’s macaw?
True or false: The vaquita is both the world’s smallest porpoise and the most endangered marine mammal
What is a totoaba?
What was the main cause of the Lord Howe Island stick insect’s near-extinction in the wild?

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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