Happily, we are recognising which ones might become endangered or even have the possibility of becoming extinct, and steps are being taken to preserve a good few. Everyone knows about the Giant Panda for instance, and in 2016, their status was upgraded from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable,’ as a result of focused breeding and conservation efforts, including the work done by the National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute and the China Wildlife Conservation Association. But there are still not many left - only 1,864 pandas remain in the wild according to the World Wildlife Fund, and roughly 600 are reported living in captivity.
Here’s another one - what do you know about the African Forest Elephant? They are smaller than the others, and have tusks that are straight and point downward, unlike the savanna elephants who have upward-curved tusks. You might group all elephants together and say yes, they are the victims of poaching for their tusks – which they are – but this one has a slower reproductive rate than any other. They do not reach sexual maturity until they are 23, and have a gestation period of around two years. In this case, population decline caused by poaching, bushmeat trade, logging operations, and loss of natural resources is more devastating. According to the African Wildlife Federation, if poaching stopped today, scientists say it would take 81 years to reverse the 62% decline experienced in the last decade.
How do animals become endangered, or even extinct?
Sadly, it has a lot to do with us humans. Loss of habitat is one area where land is developed for housing, industry and agriculture. Development can eliminate habitat and native species directly. In the Amazon rainforest of South America, developers have cleared hundreds of thousands of acres. To ‘clear’ a piece of land is to remove all trees and vegetation from it, and is cleared for cattle ranches, logging, and urban use.
Many animals have a hunting range of hundreds of kilometres. For instance, the mountain lion of North America needs a territory ranging from 30 to 125 square miles to live and reproduce. As urban areas expand into the wilderness, their habitat becomes smaller, meaning fewer mountain lions could be supported. Because enormous parts of the Sierra Nevada, Rocky, and Cascade Mountain ranges remain undeveloped, mountain lions are not - as yet - on the endangered list.
The Red List
The International Union for Conservation of Nature keeps a ‘Red List of Threatened Species’, and this list defines the severity and specific causes of a species’ threat of extinction. The Red List has seven levels of conservation: Least Concern, Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered, Critically Endangered, Extinct in the Wild and Extinct. Each category represents a different threat level. Biologists, anthropologists, meteorologists, and other scientists have developed complex ways to determine a species’ probability of extinction. These formulas calculate the chances a species can survive, without human protection, in the wild. Some species are already extinct just since 2019 - Black Softshell Turtle, Père David's Deer, Hawaiian Crow, the Wyoming Toad, the Franklin Tree. Yes, they may seem insignificant, and you have probably never heard of them – but it is the tip of the iceberg. Over exploitation (hunting, overfishing), invasive species, climate change, emerging diseases and nitrogen pollution are all additional reasons for extinction. 75% of the world’s food crops are partially or completely pollinated by insects and other animals, and practically all flowering plants in the tropical rainforest are pollinated by animals. The loss of pollinators could result in a decrease in seed and fruit production, leading ultimately to the extinction of many important foods.
I don’t think there is a single answer to preservation. This shouldn’t be a problem we leave for the next generation. The planet is warming, and some species are losing their habitat because of it and will die out, if they haven’t done so already.
Preservation plans are a subject too complex for me to tackle here in this little space, but surely this is something we should all be doing something about. Knowledge is power - it’s up to us to keep ourselves informed and act on it.
Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man.