Planet Earth

5 Endangered Animals You Should Meet

Hunting and habitat loss threaten to wipe out some of the rarest creatures on Earth.

By Allison FuttermanNov 10, 2021 1:00 PM
Red Panda lead
(Credit: Anton Watman/Shutterstock)

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One in eight birds, one in four mammals, and one third of amphibians are at risk of extinction. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), there are 16,306 endangered species — including animals and plants. The IUCN’s Red List is the premier source for the state of the world’s biodiversity. Here are five animals that are currently endangered.

Leatherback Turtle

(Credit: ACEgan/Shutterstock)

The largest turtles on Earth, leatherback turtles can reach 2,200 pounds. The only turtle without a hard shell, their name comes from the appearance of their leathery-looking skin. Incredibly, they’ve changed very little during the millions of years of their existence. These sea turtles can swim an impressive 10,000 miles each year to get to their nesting area. With notable diving skills, leatherbacks have been known to dive almost 4,000 feet, and can stay underwater for over an hour. They’ve become endangered due to a variety of issues, including ocean pollution, loss of nesting habitat, boat strikes, and climate change. They feed almost entirely on a diet of jellyfish, which provides enough sustenance and strength for their needs. It’s not that jellyfish are packed with nutritional value — it’s the volume of the amount consumed. Leatherback turtles eat over 70 percent of their body weight each day, totaling about 16,000 calories. Check out this video, which captured a leatherback turtle eating a jellyfish.

Orangutan

(Credit: Milan Zygmunt/Shutterstock)

Found in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra, the orangutan is losing its habitat due to deforestation, primarily because of island clearing by the paper/pulp and palm oil industries. Sadly, they’re also killed by palm oil plantation workers. At the current rate, it’s expected that the Sumatran orangutan will become extinct within 10 years, with the Bornean orangutan soon to follow. These animals share 97 percent of our DNA and are highly intelligent — with the ability to use tools, conceptualize, understand others, and learn sign language. There’s even evidence that they know how to use deception. Orangutans have close relationships with their offspring, with babies nursing until they’re six. Males remain with the mothers for several years after that, while females stay until they’re teens. Interesting fact: Orangutans have the longest time between births of any animal — only once every eight years.

Red Panda

(Credit: Abeselom Zerit/Shutterstock)

Despite a shared name, these animals are not closely related to the more familiar giant panda — which is actually a bear. In fact, red pandas are the only members of the Ailuridae family. Found in mountains in high forest regions of Asia, the red panda was first described in 1825. The name “ailurus” means “fire colored cat.” The name was given by French zoologist Frederic Cuvier, who admired their beauty. Although the red and giant panda consume bamboo as their main food source, the red panda eats only the tips and leaves of the shoots, while the giant panda eats all parts. Their habitat has been negatively impacted by land development for farming, housing, and commercial use. Red pandas also are hunted for their meat and pelts. It’s believed that there are less than 10,000 wild red pandas left, and possibly as few as 2,500; because they live in hard-to-reach areas, it’s difficult to accurately track their numbers. Typically they live high up in trees, only coming down for water.

Sri Lankan Elephant

(Credit: Martin Finnerty/Shutterstock)

Like many endangered animals, Sri Lankan elephants face habitat loss because of forest clearing. Due to obstacles along their migratory route from land development, there are only a few thousand of these elephants left. The Sri Lankan elephant is an Asian elephant. Interestingly, the females don’t usually grow tusks like the African elephant does. As is the case with all elephants, the Sri Lankan variety is highly intelligent. In fact, elephants are one of only three animals able to recognize themselves in a mirror — the others being the dolphin and great apes. Baby Sri Lankan elephants are born weighing between 200 and 300 pounds, but can grow to weights of 12,000 pounds (for males) and reach heights exceeding 11 feet. These enormous animals are megaherbivores, eating only plants. In order to get enough nutrients, they must spend half the day foraging, requiring up to 10 percent of their body weight in food daily. These majestic creatures can live up to (and even beyond) 60 years in the wild.

Vaquita

(Credit: Alfokrads/CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons)

The world’s rarest marine mammal, the vaquita is on the brink of extinction. These small, shy porpoises join whales and dolphins as part of the cetacean family. Discovered in 1957, it’s believed that there are only about ten still living. Found only in Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California, they’ve been decimated by gillnets that are used to catch totoaba fish, whose swim bladders fetch a high price on the Chinese black market. The vaquitas’ heads can get through the mesh net, but not their bodies. When they become trapped, there’s very little chance they’ll be able to free themselves. Although gillnets were prohibited in the area of the vaquitas, illegal fishing still occurs. In an effort to protect them, the Mexican government established a safe zone for the vaquita in 2017 — and expanded it in 2020. Unfortunately in the summer of 2021, the Mexican government effectively removed protections by allowing fisherman access to the previously off-limits zone.

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