We've already lost several species to extinction in the modern era. Some of the most recent include the Chinese Dolphin Fish and the White Possum. These creatures didn't get the media exposure of the Giant Panda and American Bald Eagle and worse, they may have been casualties of human endeavors.
Now that it is in vogue to care about the environment, more people are becoming aware of the dangers facing several species on this planet. While most of these animals have no mainstream media exposure, there are some superstars on the endangered species list.
Most people are aware of the plight of the Giant Panda and the American Bald Eagle but far less know anything about the Iberian Lynx or Caspian Seal. With over 17,000 animals on the endangered species list, we may be seeing the start of another major extinction cycle. Keep in mind that these are only species that we know about. There are hundreds of new species found in the Amazon rainforest and the tropical forests of Indonesia every week (most of which have limited populations as well).
While we tend to think of extinct species as animals that died out long ago, this isn't necessarily the case. In fact, there have been several extinctions in 2011 alone, including the Eastern Cougar and the Javan Rhino. While conservation efforts are in effect for several of the most critically endangered animals on the planet, these efforts have come too late for the Chinese River Dolphin and the White Possum among others. The Pinta Island Tortoise is the next animal that will meet its doom in the near future. Only one specimen is alive in the wild: Lonesome George. He has become an iconic image of the effort to save endangered species.
Endangered Animal Habitats
One of the major forces causing the endangerment of animals is the loss of habitat either by natural or man-made causes. Global warming and deforestation are currently the top two habitat changers, and they are responsible for the deaths of thousands of animals from the northern ice caps to the Sahara desert and everywhere in between.
Now that we realize the effect we are having on our environment, efforts have been made to restrict the destruction of wildlife habitat. Unfortunately, in undeveloped countries the focus is on the survival of humans and not on the indigenous wildlife, so we are fighting a battle with third world governments and individual farmers who don't care about the global effects of what they are doing. They care about how they are going to get the next meal on the table.
Big cats are some of the most graceful and dominant creatures on the Earth. This combination of beauty and power made them the most prized targets for big game hunters in the late 19th and early to mid 20th century. Where hundreds of thousands of these great cats used to roam, less than 30,000 remain. Some species have less than 100 breeding age cats in the wild. Even the king of the jungle is on the critically endangered list.
While there are captive breeding programs and some reintroductions have been made, it will take a concerted effort to prevent poachers from killing off the remaining big cats. The sad fact is that even if we do begin to see a rise in numbers for any of these cats, their ranges have been so severely reduced that there is no way from them to return to numbers that will take them off the endangered list.
Until recently, marine life wasn't easy to count so there was no way to know what the numbers of the various species were. As we began tracking some of those we thought were endangered, we found that there were startlingly few of them left in the vastness of the ocean. The warming of the seas has affected one of the most successful of all creatures, the Leatherback Turtle. Because water temperature determines which sex the turtle will be the rising sea temperature has generated a glut of males. It is estimated that only about 2300 females are left and the signs are not good that the next batch of hatchlings will be any more sexually diverse.
Turtles aren't the only marine animals in trouble. Whales, dolphins and tuna also have been driven to the brink of extinction. These, however, were due directly to man. Fisherman have been harvesting the sea for thousands of years but recently mega fishing companies have culled the sea of whales and tuna to a point where, if it isn't stopped, there won't be enough genetic diversity left in the sea for a breeding population to re-establish itself. The dolphin, on the other hand, has been an innocent victim, often getting tangles in nets by accident. While they are not purposely killed, that doesn't make the result any better.
Our winged friends aren't always able to just fly away from a bad situation. There have been many examples of extinct birds with the most famous perhaps being the Dodo, and we have to become more active to save them. Captive breeders have already brought the Puerto Rican Parrot back from the brink of extinction. While it still isn't out of the woods, there are almost ten times as many now as there were in the mid 1980's.
Birds, cats and marine animals all have had big names garner media exposure for the endangered species cause. While the Giant Panda has done this for some of the more exotic animals on the list, several animals just don't get the attention that they deserve. The Tasmanian devil and red and grey wolves don't get much sympathy due to their predatory nature and kangaroo rats and the pacific pocket mouse are rodents. Just because these animals aren't cute, or nice, doesn't mean they aren't an important part of our ecosystem and that they don't need to be saved.
Animals aren't the only endangered life forms on the planet. Plants, although not nearly as fun to look at, are an extremely important part of our ecosystem. In fact, most of the medicines that we have developed to treat cancer are derived from plants found in the Amazon rainforest and several of them are becoming endangered. However, rainforests aren't the only place that plants are going the way of the Dodo. There are plenty of urban areas that are squeezing the life out of our vegetative friends. How does the future look for these important members of our planet?
Sure, there are a lot of things to be depressed about when we think of all the endangered species on the planet but there are some uplifting stories as well. One of the greatest turn around stories is that of the American Bald Eagle. It's not the only American success story either. The Florida Alligator, thanks to conservation efforts in the Everglades, has been taken off the endangered species list. One of the most graceful creatures that used to be on the list, the Peregrine Falcon, is now also a member of the revived species population. These stories are not only inspirational but proof positive that we can reverse the effects we've had on the ecosystem and bring balance back to nature.