Some endangered animals are well known. Tigers, rhinos, gorillas, pandas – these are the kinds of animals that people tend to consider their favorites. Conservation efforts still involve lots of challenges, but at least getting the word out is relatively manageable. But there are over 16,000 endangered species in the world. Even without getting into insects and plants, there are many endangered species that people rarely hear about. Consider these off-the-beaten-path animals as possible new favorites. And if you find yourself worried or touched, check out the World Wildlife Fund and other conservation charities.
Here are 10 endangered species you’ve probably never heard of:
The vaquita is the smallest cetacean species. Their geographic range is very limited – they only live in the Gulf of California, by the Baja peninsula. Vaquita can easily get caught in certain types of fishing nets called gill nets. These nets have been outlawed in the region, but enforcement is not strong enough to totally prevent their use. Poachers seeking out the totoaba fish, another endangered species, regularly catch vaquita in their nets. Scientists estimate that fewer than 30 vaquita remain in the wild. Efforts to capture and breed the animal have failed and caused at least one death, and porpoises generally do not respond well to captivity. Efforts to reduce illegal fishing in the area may have some positive effect, but the population is so low that a genetic bottleneck is likely.
Musk deer are a group of seven species with distinctive ‘fangs’ and a musk gland that gives them their name. Six of the seven are classified as endangered by the IUCN and the last is still considered vulnerable. They do not develop antlers, using their tusks as weapons instead. They are hunted and sometimes raised in farms for the strong smelling musk developed by adult male deer. The musk is used in perfumes. Hunting is the primary threat to their population numbers. The traps used catch both deer with musk and those without, so large amounts of deer must be trapped for hunters to gather significant amounts of the musk. The deer live primarily in Southern Asia, but the range for some species ranges as far north as Siberia.
The African Penguin is also known as the black-footed or jackass penguin. The African penguin name is in reference to the species’ range, along the coast of South Africa. The black-footed name simply refers to their feet color. The jackass penguin name is based on the loud braying sound the penguins make, similar to a donkey bray. The species is currently threatened by competition from human fishers, and is vulnerable to oil spills. Previously the species was seriously threatened by people gathering and eating their eggs and smashing many others as part of the gathering process. The population of African penguins is now in the tens of thousands, but back in the 19th century there were several million. Some still exist in the wild, but much of the population lives in zoos around the world.
The dhole is a wild dog native to several regions in Asia. They compete with other predators in their region, such as tigers and leopards. The dhole is a very social animal, living in large clans of 12-40 animals. As a wild dog, they can catch diseases from domesticated dogs when living in relatively close contact. Their main threat as a species is loss of habitat, however. Dholes are hard to maintain in captivity, which makes conservation efforts more difficult. The IUCN estimates that there are less than 2500 mature dholes remaining.
Giant otters can reach over 6 feet long, and live in the rivers of South America. They are sometimes called the “river wolf” and live primarily off of fish. They compete for food and resources with jaguars and caimans, but the majority of their population decline is due to poaching and loss of habitat. Giant otters are social creatures, living in groups of 2-20. Giant otters have featured in mythologies of indigenous peoples all along their habitat. The current population level is unknown, but the population seems to be fragmented and in decline. In several countries, the giant otter is functionally extinct.
In 2015, saiga were already critically endangered when over 200,000 of them died suddenly from internal bleeding caused by an infection. Saiga are hunted for both their meat and horns, and as only the male animals grow horns, this hunting can leave a drastically unbalanced sex ratio among the species. They are native to several regions in Europe in Asia. The strange facial shape of the saiga allow them to breathe dusty and cold air more easily. According to the IUCN, there are about 18,000 individuals left. Estimates from the 1970s had the population at over a million. Changing climate may exacerbate infection issues and cause other mass die-offs within the species.
What we call “wild” horses today are descended from domesticated horses. Przewalski’s horse is possibly believed to be the rare exception to that. Genetic information sets them apart from modern domesticated horses by quite a distance. That said, it’s possible they are the descendant of a different species of domesticated horses, one that humans abandoned domesticating long ago. All Przewalski’s horses alive today descended from 12 particular ancestors captured in the 1900s. Their endangered status of today is actually quite an improvement – they used to be entirely extinct in the wild. Captive breeding and release programs have rehabilitated the species, and now the population has increased significantly. Some of today’s wild Przewalski’s horses live in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, away from the majority of human influence.
Māui’s dolphin, or popoto, are considered a subspecies of the also endangered Hector’s dolphin. They live in a small region off the coast of the North Island of New Zealand. They have distinct round dorsal fins, like the Hector’s dolphin, and they are one of the smallest species of dolphin. Estimates put the population at somewhere around 63 individuals, which makes them critically endangered. Like the vaquita from earlier on this list, the popoto is threatened primarily by poor fishing practices, like trawling and gill nets. Popoto also have a slow breeding rate, which makes recovering the population difficult.
The tamaraw is unique to the island of Mindoro, in the Philippines. It’s also known as the Mindoro dwarf buffalo, due to its small size. They have no predators besides humans, so their main threat is habitat loss. They’ve also been hunted, and suffered from diseases caught from non-native cattle on the islands. It’s believed that the tamaraw used to also be present on the island of Luzon, but the species is now extinct there, and the population is declining on Mindoro. Only 300 tamaraw are estimated to be on Mindoro currently.
The addax is a critically endangered species of antelope. With a distinctive white coat and spiral horns, they are also sometimes referred to as white antelopes or screwhorn antelopes. Both male and female antelopes grow the spiraled horns. They are closely related to the scimitar oryx, which is thought to have inspired the concept of unicorns. Addax are slow and vulnerable to predators such as cheetahs, leopards, and wild dogs. They’re also hunted by humans and affected by habitat destruction. There are addax in zoos and private collections, but the wild population is estimated to be below 100 individuals. Reintroduction of captive populations to the wild could help recover the species.