Tortoiseshell jewelry is beautiful, but it's also a reason why marine turtles are coming under threat of extinction. Peculiar human tastes and preferences, human conflict, and human overpopulation have led to the decimation of too many animal species around the world. Species become endangered for two main reasons: loss of habitat and loss of genetic variation. A loss of habitat can happen naturally, but human activity contributes extensively to global loss of habitat. Housing, industry and agriculture often reduces the habitat of native animals, pushing them out until they have nowhere else to go. Loss of genetic variation can occur naturally, but is often also caused by human activity. Overhunting and overfishing have reduced the populations of many animals, which means there are fewer breeding pairs. Below we have collected six animals listed as critically endangered by the World Wildlife Fund that have tragically been brought near extinction because of human interference.
The Amur leopard, also known as the Far East leopard, the Manchurian leopard or the Korean leopard, is a rare subspecies of leopard that lives in the Russian Far East. The Amur leopard suffers not so much from habitat loss as it does from prey scarcity. In China, the prey base is insufficient to sustain large populations of leopards and tigers. Agriculture and villages surround the forests where the leopards live, and as a result, the forests are relatively easy to access. This makes poaching a problem, not only for the leopards themselves, but also for important species on which they pre. Roe deer, sika deer and hare are all hunted by the surrounding villages for food and cash.
The Amur leopard is important ecologically, economically and culturally, and the conservation of its habitat benefits other species as well, including Amur tigers and deer.
During the colonization of Africa in the early 20th century, rhinos were considered vermin and were exterminated at all costs. The European hunters of that period are responsible for the early decline of black rhino populations. Habitat changes have also contributed to population declines, but not nearly as much as poaching. Rhinos are killed for their horns. Between 1970 and 1992, 96% of Africa’s remaining black rhinos were killed. To make matters worse, political instability and wars have greatly impeded rhino conservation work in Africa. A recent increase in poaching in South Africa threatens to erase any advances in conservation made in recent decades.
Rhinos are one of the oldest groups of mammals and are virtually living fossils. They play an important role in habitats throughout countries like Namibia. They are also an important source of income from ecotourism. Furthermore, the protection of black rhinos creates large blocks of land for conservation purposes, which benefit other species, including elephants.
The world’s small population of mountain gorillas is broken up into two groups: one group, comprised of a bit more than half of the total population, lives in the Virunga Mountains, a range of extinct volcanoes that border the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda; the other group can be found in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. Since the discovery of the mountain gorilla in 1902, its population has endured years of war, hunting, habitat destruction and disease. More recent threats to the mountain gorilla include habitat loss, disease, charcoal making and poaching. Humans have moved into areas near mountain gorillas and destroyed their habitat for agriculture and livestock. When gorillas come into contact with humans, they become vulnerable to human disease, which they experience in more severe forms. For example, mountain gorillas can die from the common cold. And inside gorilla habitat, in Virunga National Park, people harvest charcoal for use as a fuel source in cooking and heating. This charcoal production, an illegal and multi-million dollar industry, has destroyed gorilla habitat. As far as poaching goes, thankfully, there is little to no direct targeting of mountain gorillas for bushmeat or pet trade, but they can be caught and harmed by snares set for other animals. Despite these ongoing threats, both groups of mountain gorillas have increased in numbers. The gorilla population has increased from 620 animals in 1989 to around 786 today.
Hawkbill turtles have a distinctive pattern of overlapping scales on their shells that form a serrated look on the edges. These colored and patterned shells make them highly valuable and commonly sold in markets. Mainly found throughout the world’s tropical oceans, predominantly in coral reefs, Hawksbill turtles are particularly susceptible to entanglement in gill nets and accidental capture on fishing hooks. Marine turtles need to reach the surface to breathe and therefore drown when caught underwater. Known as bycatch, this is a serious threat to hawksbills turtles. Despite their current protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and many national laws, there is still an alarmingly large amount of illegal trade in hawksbill shells and products.
Marine turtles are living representatives of a group of reptiles that has existed on Earth and traveled over its seas for the last 100 million years. They are a fundamental link in marine ecosystems and help maintain the health of coral reefs and seagrass beds. They also have cultural significance and tourism value.
In 2012, the Sumatran elephant was changed from “endangered” to “critically endangered” because half of its population was lost in one generation—a decline largely due to habitat loss and human-elephant conflict. Sumatra has experienced one of the highest rates of deforestation within the Asian elephant’s range, which has resulted in local extinctions of elephants in many areas. Over two thirds of the Sumatran elephant’s natural lowland forest has been razed in the past 25 years, and nearly 70% of their habitat has been destroyed in one single generation. As a result, elephant numbers have declined by a staggering 80% in less than 25 years, confining some herds to small forest patches. These populations are not likely to survive in the long term. And as a result of rapid development and deforestation in Sumatra, elephants often come into contact with human settlements. They raid crops, trample homes and sometimes even hurt or kill people. In retaliation, people poison or shoot elephants.
Sumatran elephants feed on a variety of plants and deposit seeds wherever they go, contributing to a healthy forest ecosystem. They also share their lush forest habitat with several other endangered species, such as the Sumatran rhino, tiger and orangutan.
South China Tiger
The South China tiger was estimated to number in the 40,000s in the early 1950s. But over the next decades, thousands were killed as the subspecies was hunted as a pest. The Chinese government banned hunting of the tiger in 1979. But by 1996, its population had declined to an estimated 30-80 individuals. Today, the South China tiger is considered by scientists to be “functionally extinct” because it has not been sighted in the wild for more than 25 years. South China tigers are only found in zoos and in South Africa, where there are plans to reintroduce captive-bred tigers back into the wild. Even if a few individuals remain, no existing protected areas or habitat are sufficiently large, healthy or undisturbed enough to sustain viable tiger populations. If any South China tigers do remain in the world, they would be found in the montane subtropical forest of southeast China, close to provincial borders. But that habitat is highly fragmented, with most blocks smaller than 200 square miles and not large enough to sustain a tiger population.
Photos by Stromayer, Karl [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, by Marie-Lan Nguyen (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, by Matthew Field http://www.mattfield.com (Own work) [CC-BY-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons, by Carine06 from UK (Mountain gorillasUploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons, by Tom Doeppner (http://www.cs.brown.edu/people/twd/home.html) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons, by Midori (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons, by J. Patrick Fischer (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons and by Dave Proffer (Susa group, mountain gorillas) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons