The Most Endangered Animals on the Planet—and Why They Remain Under Threat

We're entering into the biggest period of mass extinction of the last 65 million years. Newsweek

Scientists believe that Earth has suffered five mass extinctions. They were caused by cataclysmic natural disasters—an ice age, volcanoes spewing poison gas, and even a space rock smashing into the Earth.

Now it’s believed that the Earth is on the brink of another mass extinction. Scientists say that “the average rate of vertebrate species loss over the last century is up to 100 times higher” than in previous centuries, at the most conservative estimates.

But this massive loss of organic diversity doesn’t come from flaming asteroids or raging volcanoes. Scientists are putting the blame squarely on human activity. “Our global society has started to destroy species of other organisms at an accelerating rate,” the report says. This is setting into motion a “mass extinction episode unparalleled for 65 million years.”

The Trump administration seems indifferent at best. Despite the public appetite for NASA to focus on climate change as revealed in a recent Bloomberg poll, the Trump administration has instead re-focussed the agency’s budget towards space exploration.

Trump himself is openly skeptical about climate change, tweeting in 2012 that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”

Whatever he believes, the planet is getting hotter, losing huge swathes of forests while more plastics poison the sea. Along with the illegal wildlife trade, this has been a factor in many animal species vanishing, and many more becoming threatened—the IUCN Red List estimates the number is as high as 26,197, including plant life.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) have put together a species directory, listing which species are critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable or near threatened. This slideshow collects the animals at the top of their list, that are most in danger of disappearing completely.

From a chubby-cheeked orangutan to a tiny pygmy elephant, the extinction of any of these creatures would be a massive loss to biodiversity. Some of these animals were discovered as late as the 1990s, and their disappearance could take many clues about evolution and biological history with them. Here are the most endangered animals on the planet—and why their existence is threatened.

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Amur Leopard — Critically Endangered
This rare leopard, which can be found in the Russian Far East, can reach speeds of up to 37 miles per hour. There are thought to be less than 100 left in the wild, making it one of the rarest cats in the world. The leopard has been extensively hunted, and its habitat has been destroyed by logging and industrial development.
Sebastien Bozon/AFP/Getty Images
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Bornean Orangutan — Critically Endangered
The Bornean Orangutan, known for its distinctive large, fatty cheek pads called flanges, has seen its population halved over the last 60 years. Its habitat has shrunk by 55 percent over the last 20 years alone, and logging and hunting remain a threat.
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Black Rhino — Critically Endangered
Native to Africa, populations of black rhino plummeted in the 20th century thanks to European hunters and settlers, and between 1960 and 1995, black rhino numbers dropped by 98 percent. Thanks to conservation efforts, the species has made a comeback, although poaching remains a threat.
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Hawksbill Turtle — Critically Endangered
This species of turtle, thought to have existed for 100 million years, are famed for their beautifully brown and orange patterned shells—the very thing which has endangered them. Their shells make them highly valuable to poachers, despite their current protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Fishing nets prove to be an additional threat.
Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images
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Sumatran Tiger — Critically Endangered
The smallest surviving tiger subspecies is known for its thick black stripes, and is native to Indonesia—the last remaining in the country. Less than 400 survive, and the remaining tigers are threatened by habitat loss and poaching, which remains rampant.
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Eastern Lowland Gorilla — Critically Endangered
Known for its stocky body, large hands and short face, this gorilla has been decimated due to years of civil unrest in its native Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s thought that the species has declined by half since the mid-1990s, but protracted violence in the region makes it impossible to know for sure.
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Yangtze Finless Porpoise — Critically Endangered
This finless porpoise’s small size and smiling face has endeared it to its native China, but still only 1,000 now remain. That’s due to overfishing reducing their prey, and striking the animals with boats.
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Malayan Tiger — Critically Endangered
The Malayan Tiger’s Latin name—Panthera tigris jacksoni—refers to tiger conservationist Peter Jackson. Restricted to the Malay Peninsula and southern Thailand, logging, poaching and road development are the animals’ biggest threats. They are also killed by farmers as retaliation, after they prey on livestock.
Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images
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Mountain Gorilla — Critically Endangered
Found in the mountain forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda, the Mountain Gorilla’s thick fur helps them survive the often freezing temperatures. War and disease impacted this species so badly it was once thought they’d be extinct by the year 2000, although around 880 survive today.
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Saola — Critically Endangered
Known as the Asian unicorn, very little has been documented about the saola, which was discovered in 1992 and has only been spotted in the wild four times. It lives in the mountainous regions of Vietnam and Laos, two countries which have seen mass logging and poaching over the last fifty years. There could be as few as 12 of these creatures in existence.
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Western Lowland Gorilla — Critically Endangered
It may be the smallest subspecies of gorilla, but the Western Lowland Gorilla possesses formidable strength. They can be found across Africa, but poaching and disease, including ebola, have shrunk populations by over 60 percent since the mid-1990s.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images