Endangered animals you didn't know were in crisis

We are all painfully aware of the fact the Earth is losing species. But it's probably a safe bet that the average person isn't aware of just how many species are moving towards extinction, probably because we'd all really rather avert our eyes and sing "la, la, la, I can't hear you" than face the cold, ugly truth. So be brave, and try not to look away: Around 27 percent of all the world's assessed species are in danger of becoming extinct. That's 28,000 different creatures, from mammals to conifers to reef corals. 

Now, listing each one of those creatures individually would make for a very long list, indeed, so that's not what you're going to find here. Instead, we've compiled a list consisting of endangered animals that have critically small populations and are charismatic or cute and/or fuzzy, because let's face it, human beings like charismatic, cute and/or fuzzy. But keep in mind that for every one of these endangered animals, there are many, many more that are a little less charismatic but still deserving of human protection. Extinction doesn't just threaten the cute and fuzzy, it is a very real problem for more than one quarter of the organisms that live on this planet.

This northern species of leopard

Humans love big cats because we can imagine hanging out with them in our houses and watching them destroy furniture while they chase a laser dot all over the living room. Yeah, it would be super-fun to have a big cat as a family pet, except for the part where they are prone to the occasional eating of the dog and smaller family members.

Even so, we love them and wish the best for them, and yet many of them are critically endangered because as a species we've done a pretty terrible job at protecting the prey animals they depend on and the habitat they're adapted to living in. 

The most endangered of the big cats is one you might not have heard of — it's the Amur leopard, which lives in the Amur Heilong Landscape along the far eastern border of Russia and into neighboring China. According to the World Wildlife Federation, the Amur leopard is cold-weather cat, with a coat that can grow nearly three inches long in the winter. Because of that gorgeous fur coat, they're a popular target for hunters, but that's not the only reason why they're critically endangered. The roe and sika deer they depend on for food are also hunted by human beings, and the cats are losing habitat, too. Happily, conservation efforts have helped to increase their numbers, but there's still a long way to go. As of this writing, less than 100 individuals exist in the wild.

This gorilla you've never heard of

The Cross River gorilla is indigenous to a very small, 3,000 square mile region in the rainforests of Cameroon and Nigeria, which makes it the western-most and northernmost species of gorilla. According to the World Wildlife Federation, these particular primates are wary of humans, and because their home is remote and rugged, it's tough to count individual animals. Instead, scientists use strategies like counting nests and estimating the size of group ranges, and their conclusions are pretty dire: As of 2019, scientists think there are only 200 to 300 Cross River gorillas remaining in the wild. 

The Cross River gorilla looks like the western lowland gorilla, but its head and teeth are subtly different and it's got a different diet and culture, as well. Unfortunately, the species' range has been transformed for agriculture and pasture, and there's been a lot of poaching, too, because there's a market for Cross River gorilla bushmeat in Nigeria. The gorilla's range has also been fragmented, which means less opportunity for groups to mix with other gene pools, and that's bad for the health of the species overall. 

It was about to get even worse, until activists persuaded the Nigerian government to change the route of the six-lane, 162-mile long highway it was planning to build right through the Cross River National Park. Really, the only hope for the survival of this reclusive species is for the governments of Cameroon and Nigeria to create protections for their habitat.

This ungulate that even biologists have never seen

It's hard to imagine that there are any large species of mammal that science has yet to discover, but in 1992 a team consisting of World Wildlife Federation researchers and Vietnam forest control agents obtained a skull from a local hunter that looked nothing like anything they'd ever seen. That was how the saola—a forest-dwelling ungulate that lives in the Annamite mountains along the border of Vietnam and Laos—became known to western science. According to the Guardian, the saola looks like an antelope but may be a primitive bovine. It has two long horns and white stripes on its face, and is said to be one of the most elusive animals in the world, so elusive, in fact, that it's been nicknamed "the Asian unicorn." 

Shortly after it was "discovered," a pair of saola were captured, but both died within a few months. Then in 1998 researchers got a photo of one on a trail cam. The next year they got another photo. And then 15 years passed before anyone saw another saola. 

Saola are vulnerable to poaching, though many of the snares that trap them are set for other species. Still, their numbers are estimated at less than 750 individuals, maybe even less than 100. Many scientists believe the only hope for this species is a captive breeding program, which is a tall order considering that no biologist has ever actually seen one of these things in the wild.

Winter's little cousin

Everyone loves dolphins and porpoises. If you don't love dolphins and porpoises, it's clearly because you are just a bad, bad person. So if the plight of the vaquita doesn't move you, you need to go watch Dolphin Tale a few times. 

Okay the vaquita is a porpoise, not a dolphin, and there are some major differences between the two. Porpoises are chubbier than dolphins, they have triangular dorsal fins (versus the dolphin's hooked dorsal fin) and they lack the distinctive dolphin beak. But ultimately, they are all cetaceans, and at roughly 100 pounds the vaquita is the smallest of them all, so you can just think of it as Winter's baby cousin. 

Whale and Dolphin Conservation reports vaquitas were driven to the edge of extinction by commercial fishing. They aren't specifically targeted for harvest, but they get caught up in the gill nets used to catch the totoaba, a huge fish prized for, of all thing, its swim bladder—one totoaba swim bladder is worth a few thousand black market dollars in China, where it's considered a health food. Yum. For a while, scientists entertained the notion of a captive breeding program for the vaquita, but there are now too few of them remaining to make that possible. In 2012 there were just 200 left in the wild. By 2014 that number was down to 100, only 25 of which were females of breeding age. In 2018, scientists were able to locate just 22 individuals.

Save the moldy potatoes

Baby rhinos, how cute. Except no, no, they're really not that cute because they look like moldy potatoes with ears. Bring it on, wildlife activists. You know they do.

Even moldy potatoes with ears are worthy of our protection, though, and one particular species of rhino qualifies as one of the most endangered species on earth. The northern white rhino, in fact, is considered "functionally extinct," because the last male member of the species died in 2018 and his two surviving offspring — a mother-daughter pair — aren't healthy enough to reproduce. 

That seems like an evolutionary dead end, but there might actually be hope. According to Smithsonian, there are scientists on four continents working on the northern white rhino problem, and they think they may be able to bring the species back from the brink by harvesting eggs from the two remaining females or by working with pluripotent stem cells, which can be generated from other adult cells and then used to make functioning egg cells. The eggs can then be implanted in a surrogate such as a southern white rhino or—get this—a horse. And the advantage of using stem cells is you can generate eggs with broad genetic variety, which solves the shallow gene pool problem you get when trying to revitalize a very small population of animals. So it may seem bleak but thanks to science the northern white rhino still has a shot. Not bad for a moldy potato.

An artichoke with legs

If you ever admired a roly-poly as a kid, you almost certainly love the pangolin because the pangolin is basically just a giant roly-poly, though it has also been described as an artichoke with legs. Pangolins are mammals but they're covered with large scales, so people sometimes mistake them for reptiles. When threatened, pangolins will roll up into a ball just like roly-polys, which makes them both adorable and terrifying because they can also use their scales like knives, which means you don't really want to try petting one.

Unfortunately for the pangolin, it lives in places where superstition is still a big part of the culture, and there's a lot of pangolin-related superstition. The pangolin is considered the most trafficked mammal in the world, largely because people believe their scales have a myriad of magical properties: When mixed with bark, they can ward off evil. When burned, they can improve the health of your cattle. And the scales are popular in China, too, where they're thought to cure diseases like cancer and asthma. And most disgustingly of all, the meat is considered a delicacy—according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, it's often served at banquets in Asia as a "luxury food." 

There are eight species of pangolin—of these, the Chinese pangolin is probably the most critically endangered. No one seems sure what their numbers are, but researchers think their population has declined by more than 50 percent since the 1970s

This American cat

America has its critically endangered animals, too, so you can't just go putting all the blame on foreigners for wiping out entire species. In Florida, there are two types of native cat: The bobcat and the Florida panther. The Florida panther is the one we're most concerned about, though, because the National Park Services says that over the years it's lost more than 95 percent of its original range, which once stretched all the way from Florida northwest through Louisiana and most of Arkansas. Today, Florida panthers are confined to the southwest tip of Florida and there are probably fewer than 100 of them remaining.

The reasons for the decline of the Florida panther are complex, but can mostly be traced back to the 1800s, when hunters were paid a bounty in exchange for killing them. Then between 1850 and 1919, huge swaths of land were cleared for lumber and agriculture, both of which decimated the panther's habitat as well as reducing the numbers of white-tailed deer—the panther's primary food source—from around 13 million to less than 1 million. And their limited numbers also put them at risk for genetic disorders. Conservationists have helped mitigate the problem by introducing small numbers of other puma types into the population—this sort of genetic exchange would have occurred naturally anyway, so it's thought to be a valid and inexpensive way to increase numbers without the risk of genetic abnormalities.

This tiny lemur with ginormous eyes

Everyone knows lemurs like to move it, move it. Okay, maybe you only know that if your kids played Madagascar on loop in the back of the minivan for like two years straight. Anyway, real lemurs mostly just stick to the trees though one of them, called the northern sportive lemur, also has the adorable habit of striking a boxer's pose when threatened. And, it's super tiny and has huge, amber eyes, so what's not to love?

Sadly, biologists think there may be only 19 of these creatures left in the wild, which is a crazily rapid decline when you consider there were something like 10,000 to 100,000 of them in the wild as recently as 1999. So what happened? Well, according to Forcechange.com, the sportive lemur's range, which once stretched from the Amber Mountain National Park in northern Madagascar to the Mahavavy River is mostly unprotected land, and it's all been heavily encroached by humans for things like charcoal production. As far as biologists can tell, the only remaining sportive lemurs live on a piece of land about 25 percent the size of New York City's Central Park. 

The northern sportive lemur isn't the only one of Madagascar's many lemur species that's in trouble, though. More than 90 percent of the world's lemurs—all of which are found only in Madagascar—are on the brink of extinction, so conservation efforts need to focus on a lot more than just one particularly adorable type. 

The big, badly-endangered wolf

Big predators have been persecuted throughout most of human history, but we've only recently been able to outmatch them. Now that we have guns, airplanes, and numbers, it's fairly easy for us to take out entire species in not very much time at all. Which is why we really need to stop doing that, already.

One victim of the human war against large predators is the Mexican wolf, a subspecies of gray wolf that lives in the southern United States and Mexico. Like the Florida panther, the Mexican wolf was a victim of government bounty programs and extermination efforts by private landowners. By 1998, there were just seven Mexican wolves left in the wild. Today things are looking up—a 2018 survey found 131 individuals in Arizona and New Mexico, and there are some in Mexico as well. Of course, border walls don't just keep out people—biologists are concerned that Trump's proposed wall will keep the Mexican population from exchanging genes with the American one, and we already know how problematic a shallow gene pool can be for the health of a species.

Fortunately, Cronkite News says there are also several captive breeding programs, which means there is a healthy population of genetically unrelated wolves that could theoretically be returned to the wild to add new genes to the small population of wild wolves. So this species may not have the numbers, but we can at least be optimistic about its potential for recovery.

The dodo bird's more charismatic cousin

The dodo bird is dead and gone, and no matter how much we would really like to use some kind of Jurassic Park magical DNA recovery technique to bring it back, it's probably not going to happen. Because let's face it, if it was possible to resurrect extinct animals, we'd have mammoths, velociraptors, dire wolves, and saber tooth tigers before we'd have any of those dumb, dumpy, weird-looking turkey things that got picked off like clay pigeons back in the 1500s and 1600s

Still, almost everyone knows the story of the dodo bird, but what most people don't know is that the dodo bird has a cousin. And what's more, the dodo bird's cousin is about to go the same way as the dodo bird did. 

According to Edge of Existence, the tooth-billed pigeon is one of the dodo bird's closest living relatives. It hangs out in forests on the island of Samoa, but like a lot of the world's critically-endangered animals, not much of its habitat remains. Large parts of Samoa's forestland were clear cut and replaced with crops, and what's left has been encroached by invasive trees and toppled by cyclones. It's hard to know for sure how many tooth-billed pigeons remain in the wild because they are reclusive, which means they may still live in small, remote pockets of the country. But scientists think their numbers are probably down to less than 250.

The birdwatcher's holy grail

Like the dodo bird, the ivory-billed woodpecker is one of those sad stories of species extinction that serves as a cautionary tale about the unnecessary cruelty and callousness of the world's human overlords. But what you probably didn't realize is that the ivory-billed woodpecker's story might actually be one of near-extinction rather than certain-extinction. Sure, it's true that there has been no confirmed sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker since 1944, (unless you count the report published in 2005, which was loudly criticized by skeptics as "inconclusive") but its habitat is deep within the forested swamps of Florida and Louisiana, which means there are plenty of places for isolated pockets of the species to hide.

The ivory-billed woodpecker is kind of a goofy looking thing – it's the largest of its kind, and it's brightly-colored like the woodpeckers we're used to seeing, but it's also long and lean which kind of gives it a Looney Tunes sort of Roadrunner look, only without the Acme anvils and clever resilience. As you can imagine, spotting an ivory-billed woodpecker these days would be like the holy grail of birdwatching, and Audubon says a birder named Michael Collins might have got footage of the woodpeckers in 2006, 2007, and 2008. But the videos are blurry and inconclusive, so it's still not proof. So go ahead and keep on destroying habitat, folks, because, you know, out of sight and out of mind. Or something.