For these 6 species, there could be fewer than 100 left

Here are some of the most critically endangered species on Earth

The vaquita porpoise is the smallest cetacean species, most easily distinguishable by its tall dorsal fin. Paula Olson, NOAA
18 September 2020
18 September 2020

Join the Global Landscapes Forum’s digital conference on biodiversity 28–29 October.

Javan rhinos, the vaquita porpoise, hairy-nosed wombats and “Asian unicorns” – how long until these rare animal species exist only as legends of nature past?

The planet is on a fast track to losing more than 6,800 primates, animals, birds, amphibians, insects and plants all included on the “critically endangered” Red List, compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Another two critically endangered species were highlighted last week by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in a report that found that two-thirds of the world’s vertebrates have disappeared over the past five decades.

Most critically endangered species – those at the highest risk of extinction – likely won’t survive the next few years. “And every time a species is lost, a small piece of the world is lost,” says Stuart Butchart, chief scientist at BirdLife International.

Here are a few of those at most risk:

Populations of the vaquita, which means "little cow",  have dropped drastically in recent years. Paula Olson, NOAA
Populations of the vaquita, which means “little cow”, have dropped drastically in recent years. Paula Olson, NOAA

There may be fewer than 18 of the small, shy vaquita porpoise still living in Gulf of California waters. Accidental victims of gillnets cast by Mexican fishers, this might be the most endangered of all marine mammals. “It is likely to go extinct very soon, despite all the efforts being made to save it,” says Craig Hilton-Taylor, chief scientist in charge of the IUCN’s Red List. One more major catch by fishers, and this porpoise could be gone forever. Saving it requires greater efforts to improve the livelihoods of these fishers – but that might not happen in time.

A photo of a Javan rhino, c. 1900. Wikimdedia Commons
A photo of a Javan rhino, c. 1900. Wikimdedia Commons

Javan rhinoceroses have been reduced to about 68 living in Indonesia after being made extinct in most of Asia, from Bangladesh to Myanmar to Vietnam. Like most Red List species, these rhinos have been subject to mass habitat destruction due in no small part to road construction, which brings more people into their forests to clear trees for farm and plantation expansion, particularly for oil palm.

The rare forest-dwelling saola has earned fame for its nickname as the "Asian unicorn." Bill Robichaud, Global Wildlife Conservation
The rare forest-dwelling saola has earned fame for its nickname as the “Asian unicorn.” Bill Robichaud, Global Wildlife Conservation

The saola is a small antelope-like creature nicknamed the “Asian unicorn” because of its rarity, likely numbering no more than 25. Its “secretive behavior” makes estimates difficult, and cameras set up by researchers have captured its image just five times. The Saola faces “enormous” hunting pressures in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Vietnam. “Where there are high rates of poverty, animals such as the Saola are snared for food,” says Hilton-Taylor.

Australia’s most critically endangered mammal, the northern hairy-nosed wombat. Jade, Flickr
Australia’s most critically endangered mammal, the northern hairy-nosed wombat. Jade, Flickr

Australia’s northern hairy-nosed wombat, also known as the yaminon, is also teetering on the edge of extinction due to the marsupial’s shrinking habitat, as well as the presence of non-native and highly flammable grasses that contribute to deadly fires. Increasing numbers of predators, including cats and dogs, are also a problem.

An illustration of the critically endangered Gilbert’s potoroo. Wikimedia Commons
An illustration of two Gilbert’s potoroos. Wikimedia Commons

Predators and habitat destruction are responsible for the dwindling population of the pocket-sized Gilbert’s potoroo, which numbers less than 50. Like a miniature hybrid of a rat and a kangaroo, it’s Australia’s most endangered marsupial and one of the world’s rarest critically endangered mammals.

As few as 50 of the minuscule critically endangered species the Jico deer mouse (not pictured) are thought to still exist in Mexico along the Gulf of Mexico coast.

Additionally, the WWF has highlighted concerns for the:

  • Eastern gorilla, also on the IUCN Red List, with an estimated 2,600 mature adults living across Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda; and,
  • African grey parrot of southwest Ghana, whose demise has also been documented by BirdLife International, which estimates some 99 percent of the grey parrot population has disappeared in the past 20 years.

The fate of these threatened species offers a powerful barometer of what is happening to our planet’s biodiversity, but it’s essential to collect more information on a greater range of species for a more precise picture, says Hilton-Taylor.

“When these creatures disappear, they will take with them not only important pieces of natural history but also significant pieces of the planet’s biodiversity puzzle that makes sense only when it is unified.”


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