It goes without saying that animals are an important part of our planet’s ecosystem. Thus, their continued survival is paramount. Despite that, there are many species of rare animals in the world that are in danger of becoming extinct. And in most cases, humans are the primary cause.
In this article, you will find three terms detailing the conservation status of each species: Vulnerable, endangered, and critically endangered. These are the official terms from the IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It maintains the IUCN Red List, the world’s most comprehensive list on the conservation status of all known biological species.
There are many criteria that determine when a species counts as vulnerable and when as endangered. I will not describe those in detail, as that would be too complicated. The gist of it is simple: The higher the risks of extinction in the wild, the more endangered the animal is.
In order to raise awareness, I have assembled a list of 10 rare animals from around the world. In a few cases, conservation efforts have already shown initial success. But for a lot of these rare animals, the situation remains critical. So without further ado, let’s get right into it.
1. Amur Leopard
There are quite a few big cat species around the world whose numbers are in decline. But of all of them, the Amur leopard might well be among the most critically endangered ones, as there are less than 100 individuals remaining. You would expect to find most leopards in the savannas of Africa. These ones, however, live in the temperate forests of eastern Russia.
Amur leopards are nocturnal animals that generally live and hunt alone. Their lifespan is about 10–15 years. They are perfectly equipped for life in a colder climate. Their thick fur keeps them warm and their large paws act like snowshoes to prevent them from sinking into the snow.
Unfortunately, its beautiful spotted fur also makes the Amur leopard a prime target for poachers, who are among the main threats it has to face. Another one is habitat destruction, brought about by fires (natural and man-made ones) as well as climate change.
2. Black-Footed Ferret
Another entry on this list of rare animals, the black-footed ferret was once declared extinct, in 1979. But this turned out to be wrong in 1981 when a dog happened to discover a specimen.
The black-footed ferret lives in North America, where it makes its home in prairies and other grasslands. Another name for them is prairie dog hunters, since those are what they primarily feed on. Incidentally, prairie dogs aren’t canines, they’re rodents.
Unfortunately, this is also what led to their decline in numbers. Prairie dog control measures, as well as the destruction of their habitats, caused their numbers to drop greatly. This, in turn, left the black-footed ferret without prey.
Their current status is endangered rather than critically endangered. Zoologists estimate their population to be at around 300 individuals. Their numbers were once much lower, but conservation efforts have helped to restore the population to what it is now. Still, diseases and habitat loss continue to threaten the black-footed ferret.
Of all the rare animals, the Pangolin is one with a rather undesirable record: It might be the world’s most trafficked mammal. Every year, poachers kill tens of thousands of them for their meat and scales. The latter supposedly have medicinal properties, but no proof of that exists.
They are nocturnal animals also known as scaly anteaters. As this name implies, their diet consists of insects, mostly ants and termites. They use their front claws to dig into ant mounds and their long tongue to then fish out the ants.
The “scaly” part refers to the large protective scales covering their skin, the pangolin’s strongest defense. When threatened, they curl up into a ball and hide their face under their tail. As these scales are also sharp, most predators think twice about attacking them in this form.
There are eight species of pangolins. Four of them are found in Africa and are listed as vulnerable. The other four live in Asia and are much worse off, all listed as critically endangered. As already mentioned, they are mainly in danger of extinction due to poaching.
4. Red Wolf
I have already talked about the most endangered large cat, now it’s time to mention dogs. Another critically endangered species, the red wolf is a canine native to the United States, with a unique reddish fur. There are only about 20 of them alive in the wild and approximately 200 in captivity.
Perhaps the most unique thing about the red wolf is the fact that it is entirely American. Its historical range consists of only the current area of the United States. That means it has never at any point in known history lived anywhere else.
The primary threat for the red wolf is habitat fragmentation. To explain, this means that their originally large habitats are split up into smaller patches. This divides their population in a similar manner. As a result, they become more susceptible to disease and suffer from a variety of health problems due to interbreeding.
5. Darwin’s Fox
A species first discovered by the renowned naturalist Charles Darwin, Darwin’s foxes live in Chile. Despite having the word “fox” in its name, it’s closer related to wolves rather than actual foxes. Its conservation status is currently critically endangered.
Darwin’s foxes live in temperate forests, particularly preferring primary forests. That term describes forests that have not been significantly disturbed by human activity. There are two distinct populations of them, one on the island of Chiloé, the other in Nahuelbuta National Park. They are omnivores, eating beetles, reptiles, and small mammals, but also fruits and berries.
The greatest threat to their survival are dogs, who attack the foxes and also spread disease. This includes both feral dogs as well as domestic ones, who visitors bring into the national park. This is less of a problem for the population living on Chiloé island. But the ones living there instead suffer from logging, forest fragmentation, and poaching.
6. Bornean Orangutan
Let’s take a look at one of the rare animals from the primate family. Namely, the Bornean Orangutan. As the name would tell you, it’s a species native to the island of Borneo (in Southeast Asia). Its overall conservation status is critically endangered.
There are three subspecies of the Bornean Orangutan. The Central Bornean orangutan is one, with about 35000 individuals. Aside from that, there are the northeast Bornean orangutans with approximately 11000 individuals. Finally, the northwest Bornean orangutans have as little as 1500 individuals remaining.
These orangutans live in tropical forests and are more solitary than other species. They are also less arboreal, which means they move across the ground more often and not through the trees. This is most likely due to the lack of any larger predators that would be a threat to them on the ground.
As per usual, human activities are at fault for the declining populations of the Bornean orangutan. Farmers burn down large swathes of forest in order to clear more room for palm oil plantations. This destroys their habitats and sometimes, orangutans even die directly in the fire. Sometimes they also move into these plantations and destroy the crops in search of food, causing farmers to shoot them in retaliation.
7. Sumatran Elephant
There are three subspecies of the Asian elephant. The Sri Lankan elephant and the Indian elephant are both endangered. But the Sumatran elephant is the only one that is critically endangered. True to their name, they live on the Indonesian Island of Sumatra.
Compared to African elephants, Asian ones are smaller overall. Despite that, they are still the largest mammal on the island. For their habitats they prefer lush forests, where there is plenty of vegetation for them to eat. Most times they remain in lowland forests, but they also like to go to mid-altitudes on occasion.
The Sumatran elephant has lost much of its habitat to humans. The forests they inhabit are often converted to settlements and plantations. As is often the case with elephants, their ivory also makes them a target for poachers. Even though demand has gone down greatly ever since China banned ivory trade in 2017, it’s not disappeared entirely.
8. Giant Otter
The Giant Otter is a carnivorous mammal of the weasel family that lives in South America. They mostly live in the Pantanal (the world’s largest tropical wetland) and in the Amazon River. It’s an endangered species, primarily due to decades of poaching.
True to its name, the giant otter is the largest animal in the otter family, sometimes up to 6 feet long. As a bit of an odd trait, it also appears to be the noisiest. Zoologists have identified at least nine unique sounds that the giant otter can make, all of which serve to convey different messages.
Giant otters possess a fur that has a wonderful velvety feel, which is precisely what makes them a prime target for fur hunters. What’s worse, they are diurnal and generally not afraid to approach humans. That makes hunting them extremely easy. Habitat destruction by loggers and farmers also continues to threaten them.
When it comes to rare animals, it would be wrong not to talk about the Asian unicorn, more commonly known as the saola. It is a critically endangered mammal that is related to cattle and goats.
Calling them unicorns is actually misleading, as they possess two parallel horns, about 35–50 cm long, rather than just a single one. They’re herbivores that live in mountain forests. During winter, they migrate to the lowlands.
Habitat loss and fragmentation are the primary threats that endanger the Saola. Hunters also often shoot them for their meat and fur. The latter in particular is problematic — many people doing so are traditional hunters, making it difficult to dissuade them. Finally, they are also often caught in snares, set by local villagers for crop protection.
I’ve talked about quite a few rare animals now. To bring this list to an end, let’s take a look at the rarest of them all. The vaquita, which is the smallest known whale. They are critically endangered, with less than 10 individuals left.
The vaquita’s habitat is the smallest range of any species of marine mammals. It consists of only a small portion of the upper Gulf of California. They prefer shallow waters, where they hunt and feed on fish, squids, and crustaceans. Their life expectancy is about 20 years.
It is unknown exactly how many vaquitas used to exist, as the first proper survey took place in 1997. At that time, their population was still estimated to be around 567 individuals. By 2007, this number had already dropped to about 150.
The main cause for this is bycatch, which means that the vaquita are unintentionally caught by fishers. Most often this happens due to the use of gillnets, special net walls designed in such a way that fish trying to swim through it get tangled in them. Several government regulations have been made against them, even a permanent exclusion zone. Despite that, illegal fishers continue to use them, so they remain a threat to the vaquita.
As has become more than obvious if you’ve read this article, all of these rare animals would probably be fine if it wasn’t for us humans. We destroy their habitats through logging or burning down forests. We shoot animals either to get them out of the way or to acquire their meat, fur, or scales. As a species, we are the greatest threat to their survival.
Now while that is a very bleak statement, not all hope is lost. For all of these species, conservationists are hard at work. They do everything in their power to prevent these rare animals from becoming fully extinct. In some cases, they have been successful in breeding animals in captivity and are making attempts to reintroduce them to the wild.