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10 Animal Species That Could Vanish in 2015 if We Don't Act Now

Animals
10 Animal Species That Could Vanish in 2015 if We Don't Act Now

Anyone who has ever visited a zoo has probably seen the charts depicting how this or that animal's habitat has shrunk, thanks to human encroachment, climate change or both. And while some animal rights activists oppose zoos and animal captivity, if we don't address the disappearance of their territory, many animals themselves could disappear from the face of the Earth—many of them as early as this year.

Habitat destruction in rapidly developing areas has threatened animals such as the South China tiger.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

The Center for Biological Diversity says there's an "extinction crisis" underway that threatens our planet's biodiversity.

"Our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals—the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-billion years," says Center for Biological Diversity. "We’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural 'background' rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day. It could be a scary future indeed, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century."

And the reason for species extinction has been upended.

"Unlike past mass extinctions, caused by events like asteroid strikes, volcanic eruptions and natural climate shifts, the current crisis is almost entirely caused by us—humans," says Center for Biological Diversity. "In fact, 99 percent of currently threatened species are at risk from human activities, primarily those driving habitat loss, introduction of exotic species and global warming."

The disappearing species include mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds and invertebrates such as corals, earthworms and butterflies.

Here are some of the species that may not live to see 2016, thanks to humans. The World Wildlife Fund rates all of these species "critically endangered."

1. Black Rhino. Recently a white rhino died at the San Diego Zoo, leaving only five in the world. But the black rhino is also threatened. With fewer than 5,000 left in the wild in the grasslands and deserts of coastal east Africa, they're sometimes killed for food but their double horns are a valuable product in this impoverished area. Ninety-six percent of their population was destroyed from 1970 to 1992. Conflict in countries like Sudan, Rwanda and Somalia has hampered conservation efforts.

2. Javan Rhino. Indonesia's Javan rhino is even more threatened than the black rhino, with possibly only 35 remaining. They're dying of disease and an invasive species that has destroyed their food source. Poaching already wiped out a subspecies of this rhino in Vietnam in 2010 and threatens this one as well. They also face threats from reduced genetic diversity and natural disasters such as volcanos and tsunamis.

3. Hawksbill Turtle. Found in tropical oceans, especially coral reefs, they feed on sponges, sea anemone and jellyfish and are essential to the health of coral reefs. They're fighting threats from every direction, including habitat disruption, pollution, poor fishery practices and illegal trade in their prized shells.

4. Soala. Often called the Asian unicorn, this previously unknown mammal was discovered in Vietnam in 1992. It's unclear how many there are since they tend to elude human contact, with estimates ranging from a few dozen to a few hundred. The forests of Vietnam and Laos where they live are being cut down to expand agriculture, forcing them into ever-smaller territory. Closer contact with humans means they're more hunted as well.

5. South China Tiger. This species of tiger hasn't been seen in the wild for 25 years, existing only in zoos. Although hunting them was outlawed in China in 1979 and its survival made a conservation priority there in 1995, the country's rapid development has meant that their habitat is fragmented into areas too small to support a population.

6. Yangtze Finless Porpoise. The Yangtze River was once home to two porpoise species, but one, the Baiji dolphin, was declared extinct in 2006, the first time human activity wiped a dolphin species off the planet. The Yangtze finless porpoise has a remaining population of less than 2,000 individuals and could go the same way as the Baiji if its food supply, threatened by overfishing, continues to dwindle. It's also threatened by pollution and ship movement.

7. Western Lowland Gorilla. This small gorilla, found in the dense rain forests of west central Africa, was once one of the most numerous but its population has been decimated by ebola. And while hunting them for bushmeat is illegal, timber and other companies making forays into distant forests have also made poaching and bushmeat trade easier—and facilitated the transfer of ebola to humans.

8. Vaquita. There are probably less than 100 of these rare marine animals left in the wild. They're often caught in gillnets from the illegal fishing  trade in protected areas in Mexico's Gulf of California. Half the population has disappeared in the last three years, with one in five drowned as bycatch. They're one of the most critically threatened species.

9. Sumatran Elephant. There are only 2,400-2,800 Sumatran elephants left on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, with half their population gone in one generation due to habitat loss through deforestation by the paper, pulp and palm oil industries. In addition, they're often killed in "human-elephant conflict" when they trample homes and crops—another result of destroying their natural feeding grounds.

10. Mountain Gorilla. This gorilla, which lives in the mountainous forests of central Africa, is jeopardized by human encroachment forcing them into more dangerous territory, as well as by poaching and civil conflicts. They number less than 1,000 but the good news is that, thanks to conservation efforts, their numbers are growing. So they could dodge the extinction bullet.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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