We’re rooting for pandas as they make their big comeback, but here are five lesser-known endangered species that need our support too.
In sixth grade science class, I was assigned a report on an endangered species. The idea was simple: each student would research an animal and report on why it was endangered and why it was important to save them. In practice, students competed over a handful of very popular animals, scarcely even bothering to look at the rest of the list. I was on Team Giant Panda, and our teacher eventually relented and let a whopping three of us tackle the majestic black-and-white creature. The details I learned about giant pandas stunned me and stayed with me. The experience also left me with questions about how we interact with endangered animals: Are the animals who need the most help getting the most attention?
An endangered species is a plant, animal or insect at risk for extinction. In the United States, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 provides federal funding for the conservation of endangered species, but some lawmakers would like to strip the act of much of its current power.
While the extinction of any species could have negative effects on its ecosystem, the focus on a few very popular creatures might not be entirely accidental. It also might not be all bad. Animals like pandas, elephants and other large and popular creatures are often referred to as “charismatic megafauna.” Scientists have, to some extent, relied on these large and exciting animals (who also are almost all mammals) to inspire people to care more about the environment. Maybe they’re on to something. Thanks to this emphasis, pandas, which have been the icons of conservation efforts for 50 years, have been downgraded from “endangered” to “vulnerable.” Maybe people are more likely to see the threat of extinction for what it is when faced with a panda or a majestic tiger, rather than a critically endangered tree frog.
Still, our conservation efforts might be lopsided. It’s hard to understand what’s really at stake when you don’t even know the names of most of the creatures at risk. So here are five animals currently facing down the threat of extinction, even if they might not get as much press as a panda.
1. The Vaquita
The vaquita is a small porpoise, and it is also the rarest marine mammal in the world. Vaquitas live exclusively in the Northern Gulf of California and tend to stick to the shallow waters. They’re also extremely shy, swim away when boats approach, and are notoriously difficult to spot. Smaller than other dolphins and porpoises, vaquitas are cute and the black marking around their eyes has led some to call them the “pandas of the sea.”
Despite the charming nickname, most people have never heard of the vaquita. However, they’ve received some press, unfortunately not for a very happy reason. In October of 2017, a group of Mexican and U.S. scientists calling themselves Vaquita CPR gathered off the coast of Mexico on a mission to capture some of the remaining 30 vaquitas, hoping to start a breeding program. Several animal welfare groups were against the operation, for good reason. One female vaquita died shortly after being captured, apparently after a heart attack, and the group immediately abandoned the idea of catching more of the small gray porpoises.
Vaquitas, discovered in 1958, plummeted in number in the 1990s and 2000s due to illegal hunting of the totoaba fish. The nets used to snare the fish also captured vaquita by accident. Presently, conservationists are working to protect vaquitas’ limited habitat from these nets, but with so few of them remaining, it’s unclear if this endangered species can be saved.
2. The Hellbender
With a name like Hellbender, these giant salamanders shouldn’t have much to worry about. However, both the eastern hellbender and the Ozark hellbender have seen declining populations since the 1980s. Currently the Ozark hellbender is considered federally endangered, while the eastern hellbender is listed as “near endangered” (though it’s classified as endangered by a few states).
Hellbenders are the biggest salamanders in North America, reaching up to two feet long. Their territory spans from New York State through much of the Midwest. They’re also completely aquatic amphibians, meaning they need to be in the water, because rather than breathing air, they absorb oxygen through their skin. Very young hellbenders have gills, but they lose them around 18 months of age. Scientists think increasing levels of sediment and pollution might be to blame for the dwindling numbers. They’re also prone to many diseases.
Attempts to breed and to release hellbenders into the wild have been successful. But to truly maintain their population, we’ll need to understand what’s killing them, and keep their environment safe.
3. The Saola
The saola is the least understood, most mysterious animal on this list. An antelope-like animal with two long, spindly horns, the saola lives in the forests of Laos and Vietnam. It was not discovered until 1992. There’s so much we don’t know about the saola. Even its population size is unknown, though it’s thought to be somewhere between a few dozen and a few hundred.
It appears that the greatest threat to the critically endangered saola is poaching, although they aren’t the targets themselves. Like the vaquita, saolas are often caught in snares and traps intended for other animals. According to the Saola Working Group, comprehensive saola conservation has not yet been attempted, but conservationists are working to change that.
4. The Hine’s Emerald Dragonfly
When you hear “endangered species,” you probably don’t immediately picture many insects, but plenty of insects are facing down the threat of extinction. While endangered bees have gotten attention in recent years, another insect needs our awareness too: the dragonfly. More specifically, the Hine’s Emerald Dragonfly, one of the most endangered insects in the United States.
A Hine’s Emerald Dragonfly is characterized by bright-emerald-green eyes and a brown and metallic-green thorax featuring lateral lines of a creamy yellowish color. They are difficult to find. In fact, in the mid-1900s they were believed to be extinct. It wasn’t until 1988 that one was found again, and the species was listed as endangered in the 1990s. Though first found in Ohio, it hasn’t been seen there since 1961.
These dragonflies depend on spring-fed wetlands. Since those are threatened, so are the dragonflies.
5. The Kirtland’s Warbler: A Reason for Hope
The Kirtland’s warbler is a small bird that nests primarily in the jack pine forests of northern Michigan. They’re extremely popular among bird enthusiasts, but even though I live in Michigan, I didn’t learn about them until I recently heard this Radiolab story.
The Kirtland’s warbler was once the rarest bird in the warbler family and has always been known to be scarce. Interestingly, though we tend to think of them as Northern birds, they migrate yearly and spend about eight months in the tropics. Males are known for their distinctive yellow breast feathers.
Their population dropped rapidly in the 1960s, for two unexpected reasons. One reason was that there weren’t enough forest fires. The jack pines that were their habitat depended on occasional fires, but with better fire-prevention technology, the trees were unable to spread. The other reason was another bird: specifically, the brown-headed cowbird. Cowbirds lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, and their young are very aggressive, making it hard for young warblers to survive.
Today Kirtland’s warblers are still endangered, but sightings have increased in recent years and they may soon be removed from the endangered species list. This may be thanks in part to conservation efforts, which have included introducing controlled forest fires and, yes, removing the brown-headed cowbirds.
According to Endangered Earth, there are 16,306 endangered species threatened with extinction. The rate of extinction is high, and humans are often a big part of the cause. Ecosystems all over the world are damaged when we lose biodiversity, including both the popular animals and the weird creatures most of us have never heard of.
Conservation turns out to be more complicated than we imagine. In the case of the vaquita, captive breeding programs that have been successful for other animals are of no use. When it comes to the Kirtland’s warbler, it turns out you have to let a few forest fires burn if you don’t want to lose all your birds. Scientists are still figuring it out, and to some degree, they’re learning as they go.
Maybe part of the solution will continue to be relying on charismatic megafauna to raise awareness about the plight of lesser-known endangered species.