But after recently helping my eight-year-old nephew research endangered animals for his homework, I was intrigued about how we classify these animals, and just how many are actually considered to be ‘endangered’.
Now, as you all know, I’m not a conservationist or a biologist so for every post I write about wildlife or the environment, I have to do thorough research. I used to be a journalist though so thankfully, this doesn’t phase me at all.
So for this post, I knew I had to visit the website of the IUCN.
IUCN stands for the International Union for Conservation of Nature and every year they publish a ‘Red List’ – a list assessing the risk of extinction for certain species.
The IUCN divides species into three categories – extinct, threatened and lower risk. Within each of those categories, there are sub-categories too (see below).
Some species don’t fall into any of the above for a variety of reasons – they’re listed as either ‘data deficient’ or ‘not evaluated’.
Now, the critically endangered list is usually the one that pops up in the news. It covers those species that are seriously in danger of becoming extinct in the wild. If you wanted to, you could work your way through the hundreds of pages on the critically endangered list to find out which ones are listed…
Yes. I said hundreds.
This is where things get scary.
After the most recent count, the IUCN listed over 5,500 species as critically endangered.
Just to repeat, that means that over 5,500 species are in danger of becoming extinct in the wild. Gone.
And there’s more.
In total, the IUCN assessed the status of over 91,500 species and found that over 25,800 are threatened, 866 are extinct and 69 are already extinct in the wild.
Over 11,700 species are vulnerable with just under 8,500 species listed as endangered.
So what sort of species are on this list?
Well, it may not surprise you that marine species are fairly close to the top. The vaquita is on the brink of extinction, and the Irrawaddy dolphin and finless porpoise, found in parts of Southeast Asia, are now considered to be endangered.
When the IUCN published their list, they warned that thousands of species are at serious risk of extinction largely due to unsustainable farming and fishing, and climate change.
Earlier in the year, scientists warned that we were losing species at such a high rate, that the Earth was facing a mass extinction.
It’s really worrying.
So what animals are critically endangered? Here’s just a handful you may have heard of:
- Amur Leopard
- Black Rhino
- Javan Rhino
- Sumatran Rhino
- Bornean Orangutan
- Sumatran Orangutan
- Cross River Gorilla
- Eastern and Western Lowland Gorilla
- Mountain Gorilla
- Hawksbill Turtle
- Malayan Tiger
- South China Tiger
- Sumatran Tiger
- Pangolin (2 of 8 species)
- Saola (often called an Asian unicorn!)
- Pygmy Sloth
- Sumatran Elephant
- Yangtze Finless Porpoise
I imagine you were expecting to see some of those listed. But that in itself is sad, isn’t it?
When the IUCN published their list, they praised New Zealand for their conservation efforts with birds like the kiwi. Some of the changes they’ve made have meant that two breeds of kiwi have been recategorised from endangered to vulnerable.
This is proof that conservation programmes can, and do, work.
Of course, some people will argue that the decline of some species is just nature’s law. Survival of the fittest.
And in some respects, that’s likely true. Animals that don’t adapt, are at the highest risk of dying out.
Indeed, a documentary I caught on TV the other day revealed the breeding of polar bears with brown bears and suggested that these new hybrid offspring could actually endure some of the impacts of climate change.
But the fact of the matter is, we humans have changed the playing field so drastically that we’re not giving animals the chance to adapt. Human activity has driven numbers down to a dangerously low level and our world is changing at such a crazy rate that a lot of animals can’t keep up. Nature can’t keep up.
Not to mention the fact that in some cases, we’re simply hunting animals to extinction for greed.
As intelligent beings, we have a responsibility to ensure that our actions don’t negatively impact other species. Because if some species disappear, our world could change beyond all recognition.
If the shark died out, for example, the entire marine ecosystem would change. Large sharks are known as apex predators – they can eat other organisms in the sea ecosystem and none can eat them. Apex predators maintain a balance of the eco-system, so without them, populations of other species can grow uncontrollably.
If sharks became extinct (a possibility looking at the rate they’re declining thanks to shark finning and climate change), there would be a domino effect and mid-level carnivores in the food chain would explode in numbers. But these mid-level carnivores eat most of the algae eaters. With more predators hunting them, the algae eaters would see a population drop and as a result, seas could be choked with algae and its excretions. The water will become slimy, less sunlight will get through to the ocean floor and coral reefs will start to die. So many species dependent on the coral and the quality of seawater would also go extinct. Before you know it, the very oceans themselves are completely different – if not dead.
In school, you learn about ecosystems and also that if you remove one link in the chain, the chain breaks. You suddenly realise the importance of every living thing on this planet.
As we grow up, a lot of us seem to forget that.
We need to look after our environment, and the animals that are in it, which is why lists like the IUCN’s are important. They highlight danger points and, hopefully, encourage governments and individuals, to take action and make a difference.
Because time is ticking.
For more information, head to the IUCN website or visit charities like WWF or Born Free to find out more about specific endangered animals.