Saolas are one of the most endangered animals on the planet — and the most elusive! Affectionately dubbed “Asian unicorns,” saolas — pronounced saw-las — evaded human detection till 1992! To date, wildlife cameras have only caught three.
Because saolas are so scarce, researchers know precious little about these herbivores that live in wet forests on the Laotian-Vietnamese border. Thanks to local sightings and a smattering of short scientific studies, we also know that saolas are crepuscular and typically travel alone or with a single partner. With their silky, short coats, saolas look a lot like antelopes but are most closely related to cattle. Uniquely, both males and females sport spindly, pointed horns that can reach 20-inches-long!
A single female named Martha lived in captivity under the observation of William Robichaud, coordinator of the IUCN’s Saola Working Group. But the doe died 15 days in, and researchers gathered little data. However, the group noticed that Martha was tame with humans but deeply distressed around dogs.
Habitat loss, illegal fur trading, population fragmentation, abandoned boar traps, and the traditional medicine black market all threaten saolas, making them one of the world’s most endangered species.
9. Kakapo ground-dwelling, nocturnal, flightless parrot, kakapos are native to New Zealand and rank among the world’s most endangered birds. Also known as the “owl parrot,” these herbivores have yellow and green plumage, huge feet, short legs, and giant beaks. They’re also the heaviest parrots on the planet and one of the longest-living birds known to man.
Today, only about 209 kakapos live on two small islands, Whenua Hoa and Anchor Island, which conservationists scrubbed of cats, rats, and ferrets — owl parrots’ main predators. The Kakapo Recovery team is clearing a third island for the Critically Endangered bird in the hopes of further bolstering their numbers.
8. Southern Bluefin Tuna
The IUCN, alongside Greenpeace and dozens of other conservation groups, lists the Southern Bluefin Tuna as Critically Endangered. Governments have even passed laws criminalizing their capture. But loopholes render the statutes toothless, and fishers regularly scoop bluefin tunas out of the Southern Hemisphere’s waters.
Pollution is also a massive problem for the species — as are disease-causing chemicals that marine ranchers use to kill algae.
7. Amur Leopard
Coveted for their pelts and bones, Amur leopards are an exceptionally vulnerable big cat. Researchers believe only 90 remain in the wild — and their numbers are plummeting due to poaching, fires, habitat destruction, and complications wrought by inbreeding.
These cold-weather cats live exclusively in the Primorye region of Russia and China. Scientists caution that Amur leopards now only occupy two percent of their historical territory due to the ravages of climate change.
6. North Atlantic Right Whale
Named by their human predators, North Atlantic right whales stick close to coasts and regularly skim the ocean’s surface for zooplankton, making them easy targets — or “the right whales to hunt,”.
Thousands of these gentle, aquatic giants once torpedoed through Atlantic waters. But today, only about 400 are left, and fewer than 100 are breeding females. These numbers worry conservationists because right whales only give birth once a decade.
Boating accidents, rising sea temperatures, and fishing net entanglements plague the whale — as does increased noise pollution, which prevents them from communicating and finding food.
They’re shy, love squid, and only nine are left in the wild. Known as the “Gulf of California harbor porpoise,” vaquitas — cousins to the blue whale — are the smallest and most endangered marine mammals in the world.
Vaquitas’ main nemesis is the fishing industry. Specifically, the 4- to 5-foot-long swimmers drown after becoming entangled in gillnets used for illegal totoaba fishing. Even though officials made gillnets illegal in vaquita waters, officials don’t enforce the law.
Pollution from the Colorado River doesn’t help the problem, and conservationists believe the species could become extinct in the wild within a handful of years.
4. Javan Rhinos
Residents of Indonesia‘s Ujung Kulan National Park, Javan rhinos are one of the most endangered species currently clinging to their patch of the planet. According to recent counts, only 67 are left. Inbreeding, natural disasters, disease, human encroachment, poaching, and the proliferation of ruinous palms are all conspiring against the 5,000-pound herbivores.
Though they weigh twice as much as the average car, Javan rhinos — also known as “Sunda rhinos” — are the shyest and most endangered of the five rhino species. How introverted are they? Instead of vocalizing, the leathery behemoths use dung and urine to communicate! But don’t confuse their quiet natures with weakness. When threatened, rhinos are ferocious and easily kill humans who get in their way.
Javans typically live for 40 years, but pregnancies are few and far between, with a long 19-month gestation period. As a result, they’re incredibly vulnerable because regeneration efforts are slow going.
3. Mountain Gorillas
A subspecies of the eastern gorilla first observed in 1902, mountain gorillas live high in the Congo Basin’s forests. Their woolly, thick hair keeps them warm in sub-zero temperatures, and the hearty primates have struggled to survive decades of civil unrest in their region.
Though the mountain gorilla’s situation is improving slightly, they still qualify as one of the most endangered animals in the world. Poaching is up, as is illegal charcoal making, which is destroying their habitats at alarming rates. Plus, human encroachment is forcing the gorillas to higher ground, and many aren’t adapting well.
2. Sea Turtles
Hawksbill and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are Critically Endangered. Their numbers have declined by about 80 percent over three generations.
Since climate determines the sex of sea turtle hatchlings — febricity gives way to females — rising sea temperatures are wreaking havoc on populations because there aren’t enough males to mate!
Despite being illegal, sea turtle poaching is a persistent problem. The animals are still sought-after delicacies in parts of the world. Plus, their shells are highly-prized status symbols in some cultures. Also, and unfortunately, sea turtles regularly fall victim to commercial fishers who inadvertently scoop them up as bycatch. By the time they’re discovered, it’s often too late.
Coastal development is also killing Hawksbill and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, as is pollution.
1. Sumatran Elephants
In 2011, Sumatran elephants landed under the Critically Endangered category on the IUCN’s Red List. Humans are overtaking their territories, and hunters illegally kill the pachyderms for their horns. Sadly, elephant shootings are up among farmers protecting their harvests.
Sumatran elephants are elemental seed spreaders. The pollination keeps their forest ecosystems healthy and vibrant, and their loss could trigger a devastating domino effect that renders dozens of species extinct in a record time.
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