Endangered Species Day is observed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on May 18th, as a day to raise awareness of the endangered animals of the country and how best to protect them. We thought it would be a good time to raise awareness and help you learn about endangered species, not just in the United States, but around the entire world.
An endangered species is an organism that is believed to be threatened with extinction in the near future. Once a species is extinct, it’s gone. Scientists believe that we are currently experiencing an event known as the Holocene Extinction, in which many varieties of plants and animals are becoming extinct, largely due to human involvement. Things that can cause an animal to go extinct include habitat destruction, climate change, disease, and overhunting.
Endangered species have been recognized as in need of protection, so that they can hopefully be brought back from the brink. Unfortunately, as the number of individuals in a particular species shrinks, the animal’s genetic diversity suffers, meaning it’s even harder for the organism to bounce back from the point of no return. Let’s take a look at some particular examples of animals that are facing some serious threats to their existence, how they got to that point, and what is being done about it.
Florida panthers are considered to be either a subspecies or an isolated population of the North American cougar. Cougars, also called pumas and mountain lions, once roamed across the entirety of the United States, as well as Central and South America. However, their presence in the United States has been greatly reduced, and they are currently only found in the Western U.S., except for a very small population in Florida.
|Florida Panther||Cougar (aka Mountain Lion, Puma)|
Florida panthers live only in the pinelands and swamps of South Florida, and human encroachment into these areas during the 20th century vastly reduced the animal’s population. At its lowest point, there were only about 20 panthers left in the wild, though conservation efforts have helped increase this number to around 230. However, there are still many threats facing this critically endangered cat.
Vehicle strikes are a major concern. Another issue is that individual panthers require a large area of territory, and as their habitat shrinks, panthers come into conflict with each other over territorial disputes more frequently. Their small population also means they are facing inbreeding due to a lack of genetic diversity, and are more susceptible to diseases. Chemicals from pesticides can also harm the panther by making females sterile, and unable to produce offspring.
Preserving the Florida Panther’s habitat is the chief method of conservation currently being promoted to protect the animal. In 1995, eight cougars from Texas were introduced into Florida to help improve the panther’s chances, which has been successful in improving genetic diversity and overall health of the Florida panther.
The Sumatran rhino is the smallest of the five living species of rhinoceros, growing to a little over ten feet in length. It’s also the only living rhino species with a significant amount of hair covering its body. Most rhinos only have hair at the end of their tails or on their ears, but the Sumatran rhino is covered in reddish fur. It lives in the rainforests and swamps of Sumatra and Borneo, though its range was once much larger.
|Sumatran Rhino (covered in reddish hair)||Indian Rhino (mostly hairless)|
Sumatran rhinos are critically endangered; though their total numbers are not known, it’s believed that there are under 100 left in the wild. While the rhino’s forest habitat is being reduced due to logging, the main threat to these rare mammals is illegal hunting. The rhino’s horns are falsely believed by some cultures to possess healing and medicinal qualities, so it commands a very high price and puts the rhinos in danger.
Conservation efforts underway include preserving habitat and halting illegal poaching. Both are very difficult goals, however, and captive breeding programs are also being undertaken with some success. However, there are those who believe that the rhino population would be able to recover faster if more protected land allowed the animals to interact and breed naturally in the wild as opposed to in captivity.
The vaquita porpoise, also called the vaquita marina, cochito, Gulf of California porpoise, or just plain vaquita, is one of the most tragic cases of an animal facing extinction due to human causes. This small porpoise was first described in 1958, and lives only in the uppermost corner of the Gulf of California in Mexico.
The population of the vaquita has been in sharp decline due to the local fishing industry’s focus on a fish called the totoaba. Large nets are used to catch the totoaba, whose bladder is incorrectly believed by some cultures to have medicinal properties, much like the Sumatran rhino’s horn. Because of demand for totoaba bladders, the fish is now severely endangered, as is the vaquita, which can often become tangled in nets meant for totoaba.
|Vaquita Porpoise||Bottlenose Dolphin|
It is currently estimated that there are only 12 vaquitas left in the wild as of the time of this writing. Many conservation efforts have been attempted, with unfortunately limited success. Part of the vaquita’s habitat has been designated a nature reserve, and use of gill nets for fishing has been outlawed. Unfortunately, the reserve does not cover the entire known range of the porpoise’s habitat, and the demand for totoaba is so enticing that many fishermen ignore the law and use nets anyway.
The Mexican Navy and conservation groups have attempted to remove illegal and abandoned nets, though it is feared that it may be too late to save the vaquita. An attempt to use trained dolphins to herd vaquitas into sea pens for a captive breeding program was sadly not successful. As a last-ditch effort, a program to breed totoaba on fish farms to meet demand and eliminate the need for illegal fisheries was proposed, which could lower the number of accidental vaquita deaths by eliminating the demand for gill nets.
The pygmy hippopotamus is less well known than its cousin, the common hippopotamus. As its name implies, it is the smaller of the two living species of hippo. It lives a less aquatic lifestyle than the common hippo, preferring a more land-based habitat, but still prefers to keep its skin moist and cool with regular wallows in the water. The pygmy hippo lives in West Africa, mostly in Liberia, but also in Guinea, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone. A small population once living in Nigeria is believed to be extinct.
|Pygmy Hippo||Common Hippopotamus|
The pygmy hippo’s biggest threat is deforestation. Its habitat has been cleared for lumber and to make space for farmland. This can separate the population into smaller groups that are unable to interact with one another, damaging the animal’s genetic diversity. They are also illegally hunted for their meat.
Conservation groups are working to save this species. Preserving its habitat is key, and currently some hippos are lucky enough to live on protected lands. Captive breeding programs in zoos, while controversial, are also ensuring that the species’ continued existence.
Conservation is Key
Though the outlook for many endangered species may seem dire, it’s important that we not give up hope and continue the fight to protect the world’s threatened creatures. Many of these animals fill important ecological roles, and their loss would have negative effects on the ecosystem in which they live. So get out there and help spread the word about endangered animals!
Learn more about Endangered Animals in these blog posts: