26 animal species humans are pushing to the brink

The COP26 was touted as a turning point for our planet. But will the leaders at The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference take the urgent action needed to halt the drastic decline in the world’s animal species?

Published 9 Nov 2021, 10:01 GMT, Updated 15 Nov 2021, 13:56 GMT
A captive white bellied pangolin and her baby, photographed at Pangolin Conservation, Saint Augustine, Florida. All species of ...

A captive white bellied pangolin and her baby, photographed at Pangolin Conservation, Saint Augustine, Florida. All species of pangolin face threats from lucrative trafficking in huge numbers due to the supposed (but unproven) medicinal qualities of its scales. 

Photograph by joel sartore, national geographic photo ark

For some, the word ‘extinction’ belongs to an ancient era of ice ages and asteroids, and near-mythical beasts like the dinosaurs and dodos. But extinction is happening at an astonishing rate right now, often silently and beyond our glare.

The past 540 million years of Earth’s history have seen five deadly periods of mass extinction. Scientists believe we are now in the midst of a sixth – the Anthropocene extinction – with human activity driving the loss rate of species from 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than it should naturally be.

(Related: will humans survive the sixth great extinction?)

Human super predators have reshaped the landscape since our ancestors first stood on two feet and strode out from Africa, annihilating fellow Earthlings on our journey, both directly through hunting and consumption, or inadvertently through over-population, habitat loss, agriculture, pollution, introduction of invasive species and climate change.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species, the world’s most comprehensive information source on the global extinction risk status of animal, fungus and plant species, has assessed 138,300 species to date and, of these, 28% are estimated to be threatened with extinction. Global wildlife populations have fallen an average of 68% since 1970, while 51% of all native species are threatened, near threatened or already extinct in at least one of the countries of Great Britain.

“The nature crisis is as every bit as pressing and important as the climate crisis,” the chair of Natural England, Tony Juniper, told National Geographic. “It is vital we step up efforts to halt and reverse the decline. Natural England stands ready to work across Government to help make it happen, including through the delivery of an ambitious Nature Recovery Network that will see not only the improvement of our vital protected areas, more green spaces and trees in towns and cities and the restoration of lost habitats, including woodland, wetland and heaths, but also the return of lost species.”

The 2021 COP26 summit in Glasgow offers an opportunity to stop the human-driven decline in global biodiversity, reverse the destruction of nature, halt the climate catastrophe and save the planet’s imperilled species – including ourselves. Failure to rise to these challenges in the next 10 years, designated the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration by the United Nations, may see our world irreversibly changed.

At this critical time in Earth’s history, we take a look at 26 animals destined for extinction on a global or local scale if urgent action isn’t taken today – and hear from the conservationists who are striving to rewrite the final chapter in their remarkable stories.

Vaquita

Endemic to the Sea of Cortez in the Upper Gulf of California in Mexico, it’s believed just six of these tiny porpoises remain. Their destiny is tragically entwined with their marine neighbour, the totoaba fish, known as ‘the cocaine of the sea’. Despite a permanent fishing ban since 1975, the totoaba is illegally targeted for its swim bladder, highly prized for its (non-proven) medicinal value in Asia. Entanglement in the poachers’ vast gillnets has rendered the vaquita the world’s most endangered marine mammal. International direct-action ocean conservation movement, Sea Shepherd, patrols the UNESCO Vaquita Refuge, confronting fishing vessels and removing nets. “Every net that is removed from the sea saves the lives of countless marine creatures and gives the vaquita a fighting chance,” says Peter Hammarstedt, Director of Campaigns at Sea Shepherd Global.

Eastern lowland gorilla

The world’s largest primates, and some of our closest living relatives, gorillas continue to face huge challenges, from habitat loss to disease, poaching for bush meat and trade, mining and extreme volatility in some of the regions where they roam. Over 200 wildlife rangers have been killed on duty in DRC’s Virunga National Park, defending mountain and eastern lowland gorillas, while the collapse of tourism due to the COVID-19 pandemic has seen a loss of revenue and increase in poaching. Now found in just 13% of its original range, and having experienced an estimated 60% population decline over the last few decades, the eastern lowland or Grauer’s gorilla is critically endangered, the last step before extinction. The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is working with local landowners to develop sustainable management practices in eastern lowland gorilla habitat. “The data shows that gorillas residing in community-owned forests can do very well,” says the Fund’s Tara Stoinski, President, CEO and Chief Scientific Officer. “The people of the Nkuba Conservation Area (NCA) show us it is possible to protect biodiverse wild spaces and the animals that live in them, while at the same time building strong, supportive human communities: this makes me hopeful for the future.”

Scottish wild cat

Extinct in England and Wales, the Scottish Highlands remain the last stronghold of Britain’s only remaining native cat species. Found in the forests bordering moorlands, habitat loss, hunting, interbreeding with domestic cats and disease have decimated the ‘Highland tiger’, and fewer than 400 individuals are now believed to exist in the wild, rendering the population no longer viable.

(Related: Amidst hybridisation and habitat destruction, the Highland Tiger is clinging on by a claw.)

The Saving Wildcats programme is a European partnership project supervised by the Royal Zoological Society Scotland (RZSS), which is breeding wildcats in captivity at the RZSS Highland Wildlife Park in the Cairngorms National Park and Alladale Wilderness Reserve, and aims to release 20 cats a year into the wild.

Pangolin

Once little known, recent years have seen the pangolin become famous for all the wrong reasons, as the gentle mammal has tragically become the poster species for wildlife trafficking. According to wildlife trade monitoring network, Traffic, up to one million pangolins have been traded in the last decade. “All eight pangolin species are now classified as threatened by the IUCN, and while they are protected by national and international laws, they remain in high demand in China and Vietnam for their meat and their scales, which are used in traditional Asian medicine,” says Michela Pacifici, a researcher for The Global Mammal Assessment (GMA) programme, which informs the the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. “Effective law enforcement, reducing the demand for pangolin items, and working with local communities are all key for preserving the species.”

North Atlantic right whale

One of the world’s most endangered large whale species, the North Atlantic right whale has suffered from years of human exploitation, being hunted almost to extinction by commercial whalers by the 1890s (the 'right' of their name was a reference to whalers as them being the 'right' whale to kill). Despite being legally protected from hunting since the 1930s, fewer than 400 individuals remain, with entanglement in fishing nets, ship strikes and climate change impeding the species’ recovery. “Seasonal Management Areas should consider whale migration routes, along with their feeding and reproductive activities, to help mitigate collisions. Tighter restrictions on certain types of fishing gear are also urgently needed,” says Michela Pacifici from The Global Mammal Assessment (GMA) programme. (Related: 14 incredible images of whales.)

Madame Berthe's mouse lemur

The tiniest of the mouse lemurs, and the world’s smallest primate with with a body mass of just 30g, Madame Berthe’s is sadly also one of the lemurs most threatened with extinction. Found only in the fragmented forests of the Menabe region of Western Madagascar, with a total estimated range of only 35,000 hectares, this little lemur is at huge risk from logging, slash and burn agricultural practices and charcoal production. “The annual deforestation rate in Menabe exceeded 4,000 hectares in 2017 and 2018,” says Piero Visconti, Senior Research Scholar and Research Group Leader at the Biodiversity, Ecology and Conservation Group (BEC). “If deforestation continues at the same rate, the remaining habitat and species could tragically be lost within the next 10 years.”

Red squirrel

Once synonymous with the UK countryside, the population of red squirrels has dropped from a high of 3.5 million to under 140,000, compared to a current estimate of 2.5 million non-native grey squirrels, which were first introduced in 1876. Greys extract more energy from seed, breed faster and outcompete, stress and displace red squirrels, “ explains Heinz Traut, Project Manager for conservation group Red Squirrels Northern England, which is supported by Natural England’s Species Recovery Programme (SRP). “Add to this the fatal squirrelpox virus, which greys carry asymptomatically, and the consequences for our reds are disastrous.” Grey squirrel fertility control, gene editing and control by pine marten predation are all potential remedies to rescue the reds from the danger zone. 

Sumatran rhino

Rhinos have roamed the planet for 50 million years. With the northern white rhino now functionally extinct – the last two females of the species have been participating in an assisted reproduction programme at Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy – the Sumatran rhino could be the first of the remaining rhinoceros species to become extinct in the wild. “Their numbers have plummeted by 50% since the late 1990s, and they are increasingly threatened by habitat loss, as human population growth increases the pressure on the wild spaces the rhinos need to survive,” explains Simon Jones, Founder and CEO of international conservation charity, Helping Rhinos. The demand for rhino horn from China and Vietnam, where it is still used in traditional Asian medicine, could also drive this closest relative of the ancient wooly rhinoceros from the Pleistocene Epoch to extinction.

Monarch butterfly

If anything sums up human complacency with regards to wildlife, it’s the catastrophic decline of the monarch butterfly and the refusal of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service to grant this iconic species immediate protection of the Endangered Species Act.

Scenes of millions of monarch butterflies clustering on trees during their legendary thousands-of-miles migration from their summer breeding grounds to overwintering destinations are now a memory: the western monarch population has declined by a devastating 99% in just 40 years, while eastern monarchs have declined by more than 80% over the past two decades. (Related: Why are we losing monarch butterflies so fast?)

Autumn 2020 saw just 20,000 of these critical pollinators arrive in California: the robust few who survived habitat loss, extreme climate events, and swerved the glyphosate-based herbicides, which destroy the essential milkweed plants eaten by monarch caterpillars (Iowa has lost 98 percent of its milkweed but is working to restore monarch habitat). 

Dan Hoare, Director of Conservation at UK wildlife charity Butterfly Conservation says:  “Climate change, habitat loss, agricultural intensification and pesticide use is driving the monarch butterfly towards extinction. Recovering this species will require habitat restoration efforts at a continental scale: it fully warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act.”

“Scientists believe we are now in the midst of the ‘Anthropocene extinction’ – with human activity driving the loss rate of species from 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than it should naturally be.”

Grey long-eared bat

The United Kingdom’s rarest mammal, this intelligent, social bat has almost vanished from the countryside, as the grasslands it depends on for food and safety have become fragmented. With fewer than 1,000 remaining, the grey long-eared bat joins the greater mouse-eared, Leisler’s, serotine and barbastelle bats, all listed as being in danger of extinction on the Mammal Society's first official Red List for British Mammals. Developed by Natural England and Rethink Nature – a partnership of seven conservation charities – the Back from the Brink project, led by the Bat Conservation Trust, is working with landowners to protect and restore precious habitats to help bat populations bounce back.

(Related: these British bats are so rare, few photographs exist. This photographer aimed to change that.)

Sehuencas water frog

Like canaries in a coal mine, amphibians are indicator species for ecosystems – and their global decline should be a huge alarm call for us all. There are more than 7,650 known species of amphibian and more than 40% are now threatened with extinction. In addition to habitat loss and predation by non-native species, rising temperatures are creating the conditions for deadly diseases which are pushing amphibians to the edge.

For 10 years, Romeo was the only known Sehuencas water frog, captured from the wild in a Bolivian rainforest. A fundraising campaign enabled a mate-finding mission to locate his Juliet, and now five more have joined Romeo at The K’ayra Center at the Alcide d’Orbigny Natural History Museum in Bolivia’s Cochabamba City. “The only known Sehuencas water frogs are in this breeding program, but the species has yet to breed in captivity,” says Barney Long, Senior Director of Conservation Strategies at biodiversity restoration NGO, Re:wild. “Unless we can figure out the right conditions for breeding, these animals will die of old age and the species will be lost forever.”

Duck-billed platypus

Once widespread across the eastern Australian mainland and Tasmania, these indigenous egg-laying mammals, or monotremes, have seen much of their habitat destroyed by the devastating Black Summer bushfires, which ravaged landscapes and killed an estimated three billion animals. Without trees to shade the platypuses’ preferred freshwater pools, temperatures soar, while water quality is severely impacted by bushfires, which can cause algal blooms and deoxygenation. Severe droughts and habitat fragmentation by dams have halved platypus numbers, with local populations now extinct across 40% of their range.

(Related: the silent decline of Australia's beloved oddity.)

“Many populations are likely to have been declining for more than 50 years due to land clearing, urbanisation, changes to river flows and more,” explains Josh Griffiths, Senior Wildlife Ecologist at research organisation Cesar in Victoria. “Without strong nature laws that protect the habitats of the animals we all love, it’s only a matter of time before we see them racing towards extinction.”

Shrill carder bee

One of the United Kingdom’s rarest and most threatened bumblebees, the shrill carder bee – named after its distinctive, high-pitched buzz – is found in just five areas, two in southern England and three in south Wales. Loss and fragmentation of habitat is the key threat, with their isolated populations leaving them vulnerable to inbreeding and loss of genetic diversity. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust, working with Buglife alongside Natural England and other partners, launched the Shrill Carder Bee Conservation Strategy in July 2020 as a continuation of the Back from the Brink Shrill Carder Bee project, to protect critical wild flower and nesting habitat for the bees.

African forest elephant

The elusive relative of the African savanna elephant, these smaller pachyderms are found in the forests of Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo, with populations in Central and West Africa: just one quarter of its historic range. In a 2021 review of the IUCN Red List, savanna and forest elephants were categorised as separate species for the first time, with the African forest elephant now listed as Critically Endangered. Latest estimates suggest that the population has declined by more than 80% over the last 90 years, and the trend is set to continue. "The species faces major challenges from poaching, both for ivory and the international bushmeat trade, as well as loss of habitat to agriculture and industry,” says Charlie Mayhew MBE, Chief Executive of African elephant charity, Tusk. “We welcome the re-listing of these keystone species in this critical year for conservation. As governments gather to set important new targets for tackling climate change and protecting the planet’s rapidly declining biodiversity, elephants can receive the priority they deserve.”

Water vole

The Wind in the Willows favourite, Ratty, is sadly in danger of disappearing from the British countryside. “Water voles are thought to have been lost from 94% of the sites they were once found, disappearing due to development, insensitive changes to their habitat, and predation by the non-native American mink,” says Ali Morse, Water Policy Manager at The Wildlife Trusts. The Trusts’ National Water Vole Database & Mapping Project is helping conservationists to plan strategically for their return. “Trusts work to enhance rivers and wetlands, advise landowners on habitat management, campaign against detrimental development, and remove damaging mink to give voles a chance to recover,” says Morse.

Pondicherry shark

This small, Critically Endangered shark was once widespread throughout the Into-Pacific, but is now so rare, some believe it could be extinct, although specimens appear from time to time in rivers and inshore waters. With fossil records dating back 400 million years, sharks are some of the oldest life forms on Earth, but but a staggering 70% of sharks and rays have disappeared from our oceans in just 50 years. Many species are now threatened with extinction due to overfishing, bycatch and demand for shark fins, considered a delicacy in Asia. Pollution, habitat degradation and climate change are also adding to the decline.“To protect these essential apex predators, governments must urgently establish vast Marine Protected Areas to cover at least 30% of the seas, and at least 10% of those should be Highly Protected no-take zones,” says Sandy Luk, Chief Executive of the Marine Conservation Society.

Video: see more of National Geographic's Photo Ark project

Photo Ark: Joel Sartore

St Lucia racer

The Caribbean island of St Lucia is home to 2,000 native species, with 200 found nowhere else on Earth, including 76% of its reptiles. The endangered St Lucia Amazon parrot was saved from extinction through a partnership with the St Lucia Forestry Department and Durrel Wildlife Conservation Trust. which saw their numbers increase from 100 to an estimated 1,750 - 2,250 individuals. Now it's hoped that efforts to protect the St Lucia racer, known as the world’s rarest snake, can replicate this success. Wiped out on mainland St Lucia by invasive species including rats, mongooses and opossums, just 18 of these small, harmless reptiles live on the protected nine-hectare island of Maria Major, with ambitious plans in place to expand its range.

Amur leopard

Probably the world’s rarest big cat, an estimated 100 Amur leopards remain in the wild, their incredible rare beauty sadly making them a target for trophy hunters. Found in the forests of Russia and China, with a few animals spotted in North Korea, these apex predators remain under pressure from habitat loss and poaching for their bones, used in Asian medicine. (Video: Watch the rare Amur leopard.)

They are also vulnerable to disease including Canine Distemper Virus (CDV). With a population that plummeted to 35 individuals a few decades ago, the Amur leopard is the only big cat with international approval for a captive-bred reintroduction programme, with partners including WCS, ZSL and WWF, which offers some hope for the species.

Northern hairy-nosed wombat

One of the most biodiverse nations on Earth, with 86% of species found nowhere else on the planet, Australia also has the highest mammal extinction rate in the world, and over 500 native species are listed as threatened under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act 1999. The northern hairy-nosed wombat is one of the continent’s critically endangered mammals.

Competition for food with introduced domestic species and predation by dingoes has seen numbers plummet to just 315 individuals living in Epping Forest National Park and Richard Underwood Nature Refuge in Queensland. The Wombat Foundation funds research and conservation projects, with the aim of seeing the wombats roam once more across their former range.

Peacock tarantula

Love them or loathe them, arachnids play a vital role in healthy ecosystems, keeping insect populations under control, and in turn, disease. There are an estimated 45,000 species of spider  with perhaps as many yet still to be discovered but like insects, their numbers are in decline due to habitat loss, industrial farming, pesticides and the spread of monoculture crops. Found in just one small area of forest in India’s Andhra Pradesh, this brilliant blue tarantula lives in crevices in tall, old-growth trees, but logging and habitat degradation in its home range, along with trapping for the international pet trade, has led to the IUCN listing the spider as Critically Endangered. (Read: new species of tarantula found with weird 'horn' on its back.)

Rondo dwarf galago

Living in eight fragmented patches of forest in Tanzania, the Rondo dwarf galago is one of the world’s rarest primates. Weighing just 60g with a distinctive call and ‘bottle-brush’ tail, these insect-eating tree-dwellers are under threat from deforestation and habitat degradation. The ZSL (Zoological Society London) EDGE of Existence Programme is the only global conservation initiative to focus specifically on threatened species that have few close relatives on the tree of life. “EDGE prioritises unique species that are at high risk of extinction, and have had low conservation attention to date,” says EDGE Programme Manger, Olivia Couchman. “If we lose Critically Endangered species like the Rondo dwarf galago, Chinese pangolin, Seychelles palm frog and Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna, we stand to lose many millions of years of evolutionary history.”

Flapper skate

Once abundant in the seas surrounding the British Isles, the flapper skate – a large flat fish, growing up to three metres in length and related to sharks and rays – is now a critically endangered species. Historically overfished, the skate remains under pressure from bycatch, dredging and habitat destruction, so protecting its foraging and nursery grounds is crucial to the survival of the species. In 2019, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, marine biologist and founder of Mission Blue, Dr. Sylvia Earle, established the Argyll Coast and Islands Hope Spot – the first in mainland U.K. – to protect the little-known but largest of all the world’s skates, calling it “more endangered than the giant pandas”.

“COP26 offers an opportunity to stop the human-driven decline in global biodiversity, reverse the destruction of nature, halt the climate catastrophe and save the planet’s imperilled species – including ourselves. ”

Ploughshare tortoise

“Known locally as Angonoky, the largest of Madagascar’s five endemic species of tortoise is in the unenviable position of being both extremely rare and highly threatened,” says WWF’s Africa Region Director, Alice Ruhweza. With numbers reduced to around 100 adults by locals hunting them for meat and capture for the exotic pet trade – they have been known to fetch $50,000 on the black market – Baly Bay National Park is their last stronghold. “But there is hope,” says Alice. “We must work together to broaden global awareness of the illegal trade in endangered species for pets, and encourage governments to strengthen laws to bring this beautiful tortoise back from the brink.”

(Related: read this before you consider a tortoise as a pet.

Great Indian bustard

Considered ‘living dinosaurs’, birds have inhabited the planet for around 100 million years, but today, over 1,480 of the 10,000 known bird species are considered globally threatened, and 223 are Critically Endangered. In Europe, one in five bird species are now threatened with extinction, while seabird populations are suffering due to longline fishing and marine pollution. But it is Asia’s bird species which have seen the sharpest decline because of rampant deforestation. Once widespread, fewer than 200 great Indian bustards remain, found mostly in the Thar Desert. “These birds face a multitude of threats including habitat loss and degradation, power line collisions, hunting, predation by dogs and foxes and direct disturbance,” explains Stuart Butchart, Chief Scientist at BirdLife International. An indicator species, when birds are in danger, we’re all in danger, too. 

Orinoco crocodile

The largest predator in South America sadly hasn’t proven to be a match for the human hunters that have driven the species towards extinction. Of the 24 known species of crocodilians, the Orinoco crocodile is one of seven listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, with four other species listed as vulnerable. (Related: behind the scenes of a close crocodile encounter.)

Found in the Orinoco River and its tributaries in Venezuela and Colombia, the crocodile – which can measure over five metres in length – was hunted almost to extinction for its skin. Despite legal protections being introduced in the late 1960s, fewer than 250 remain in the wild today, but it’s hoped that captive breeding and reintroduction programmes will help the population recover.

Vangunu giant rat

Discovered in the Solomon Islands, a remote archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean to the northeast of Australia, this large arboreal rodent was first documented in 2015 by researchers from the Chicago Field Museum, but is already Critically Endangered. “The vika, as it’s known locally, is only found in one unlogged forest on the island of Vangunu,” Re:wild’s Senior Director of Conservation Strategies, Barney Long, told National Geographic. “And sadly that forest is slated to be logged, which could spell extinction.” Hope for the vika lies with the people of Zaira, a small community demanding protection for the forest and taking a stand against logging and mining. "The rivers, streams and seas are all polluted and the companies are operating for just one, three or five years, and then they leave," community leader, Hanz Jinohe, told ABC News. “We are so dependent on the natural resources in the sea and the forest for our continuous sustainment. The people are in so much trouble. We have seen it with our own eyes.”

National Geographic is committed to encouraging positive action at an individual level to help curb climate change. To mark the COP26 Climate Conference, discover more ways we all can live lighter on the planet here.

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