Earth Day is one of our favorite days of the year because it gives us an opportunity to reflect on our role as citizens of Earth, a planet we share with countless species big and small, predator and prey.
As environmentalists and conservationists, we believe one of the best ways to measure our ‘good citizenship’ is by monitoring the status of vulnerable species around the world. Our friends at the World Wildlife Fund support a list of target species “whose protection influences and supports the survival of other species or offers the opportunity to protect whole landscapes or marine areas.”
Using this list as a way to evaluate and share the impact of their efforts, WWF categorizes each species using the classifications established by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List:
Extinct – Certainty beyond a reasonable doubt that no known individuals remain
Extinct in the wild – Known only to survive in captivity or naturalized outside its historic range
Critically endangered – Extremely high risk of extinction in the wild
Endangered – High risk of extinction in the wild
Vulnerable – High risk of endangerment in the wild
Near threatened – Likely to qualify as threatened in the near future
Least concern – Lowest risk
While we often spotlight the plight of well-known animals like rhinos and elephants here on our blog, we want to take the opportunity today to spotlight five lesser-known animals on WWF’s list that are critically endangered and in need of our support now more than ever.
Known for its ornate shell and narrow, pointed beak, the hawksbill turtle is the modern descendant of a group of reptiles that has swam our seas for over 100 million years. Hawksbills are valuable members of the tropical coral reef ecosystem as they feed on sponges, sea anemones, and jellyfish, improving the health of coral reefs and sea grass beds while clearing the way for hungry fish. Like many of their marine counterparts, they are threatened by the loss of their nesting habitat, overfishing, pollution, and coastal development.
The saola was discovered less than 30 years ago, becoming the first large mammal newly discovered by the scientific community in more than 50 years. Known fondly as the ‘Asian unicorn’ for its two long, slender horns, saola live only in the Annamite Mountains of Vietnam and Laos. The exact saola population is unknown, but is estimated to be anywhere between a few dozen and a few hundred. Although they are not typically targeted by hunters, deforestation and infrastructure development has limited their habitat and increased the likelihood that saolas will be captured in traps set for other animals.
The rarest marine mammal in the world is on the verge of extinction, largely due to illegal fishing operations. The vaquita is a small porpoise with striking dark and light gray features that lives in the shallow waters of marine protected areas in the Gulf of California where it struggles to live peaceably amongst fishing boats. There are only 30 vaquita left, making it the most endangered cetacean in the world. It is estimated that 20% of vaquita are accidentally caught in gillnets intended for other species, making the enforcement of a gillnet ban an immediate need for their survival.
Western Lowland Gorilla
The western lowland gorilla is the most numerous and widespread of all gorilla subspecies. This species is slightly smaller than its other gorilla counterparts and is found throughout Africa but concentrated in the Congo Basin. The exact number of western lowland gorillas is unknown as they inhabit dense and remote rainforests and swamps. Unfortunately, it is estimated that their number has declined over 60% in the last 25 years due to poaching, commercial development, and contagious diseases like Ebola, which has killed up to 90% of gorillas in some areas.
This leopard’s habitat extends across the temperate forests of Russia and China. It is a majestic creature that has been heavily poached for its beautiful fur, leaving just around 60 remaining on the planet. In addition to the threat of poachers, the Amur leopard is also at risk due to habitat destruction, which has diminished the viability of its prey and exposed the leopard to local village poachers. To combat this, the 650,000 acre Land of the Leopard National Park opened in Russia in 2012 and protects about 60% of the remaining population.
On this Earth Day, join us in taking time to reflect on your role as a global citizen. Share our Instagram post to spread awareness. There is still hope for all of these species, and if we each do our best to take responsibility for their well-being, we can help all of the earth’s creatures thrive.