Polar bears. Pandas. Penguins. There's a reason why these species are poster animals for the environmental movement: They're cute.
Photos of adorable, charismatic animals help spread the message of pollution, climate change, habitat loss, the need for wilderness preservation, poaching and so many other issues. It's a great strategy to get people to pay attention to problems that affect not only these but countless other less attractive species.
But what's the status of some of these adorable and beloved animals? Which ones do we stand to lose within the next few decades? The reality might startle you.
Here are just a handful of the cutest species, images of which often brighten our hearts and minds during a busy work day. But those images are all we'll have left if we don't act to protect these creatures now.
The Bornean orangutan lives in tropical rainforests, swamps and mountain forests on the island of Borneo. They primarily spend their time in trees and can live for up to 45 years in the wild. They are highly intelligent animals and have been observed using tools.
About 100,000 orangutans in Borneo, the world's largest population of orangutans, have been lost since 1999, according to a 2018 study. Approximately 50 percent of the population has been affected by exploitation and extraction of natural resources mainly for paper and palm oil. Logging, deforestation and industrialization are to blame for the orangutan's decline. Hunting is also a major factor.
NPR reports that Borneo has the largest deforestation rates in the world, with an average 865,000 acres cleared every year between 2001 and 2016, according to the Center for International Forestry Research.
On a somewhat positive note, the bornean orangutan is a resilient animal. "They can walk on the ground for certain distances. They can also feed on plants like acacia or palm that are not their natural food," scientist Maria Voigt told NPR. "So they might be able to survive in landscapes where you have coexistence between development, in terms of plantations, and forests, as long as there is enough forest for them to survive and they are not killed."
However, they are still in danger of going extinct with only about 70,000 to 100,000 left.
One of the most revered and beloved creatures on the planet faces extinction in the wild in just a matter of decades. African lions gained protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2015, however the species is projected to lose another 50 percent of their population over the next two decades.
They potentially could be gone from the wild entirely by 2050, reports Scientific American. According to that report, the lion population is estimated to be fewer than 34,000 animals, and about 70 percent of those live in just 10 regions in southern and eastern Africa. Lions are extirpated entirely from many historical habitats.
Habitat loss, loss of prey, sport hunting and retaliatory killing by livestock ranchers are four critical issues facing lions today.
This bunny-like rodent is found in high mountain ecosystems in the North American west. The tiny balls of fluff are known for their high-pitched calls, which they send out to claim territory and attract mates. Well adapted to the freezing alpine life, the American pika cannot tolerate heat and can die when exposed to temperatures above 78 degrees for more than a few hours. But climate change is bringing these warm temperatures to the mountain homes of pika.
While the species has been able to escape heat by moving upslope into higher elevations, there isn’t anywhere else for the tiny rodents to go. According to the National Wildlife Federation, “they have already disappeared from over one-third of their previously known habitat in Oregon and Nevada. Now, the situation is so dire that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering the pika for protection under the Endangered Species Act... Biologists now fear that these hearty creatures may not survive global warming.”
Computer models show that the interior West will warm by anywhere from 4.5 degrees to 14.4 degrees Fahrenheit during the next century. Considering that pikas are disappearing from their historical ranges after a temperature rise of just 1 degree, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to adapt as their homes heat up.
Long the poster child of global warming, it's possible that two-thirds of polar bears will be gone forever by 2050 due primarily to a decrease in ice pack, and thus a decrease in access to prey.
"The best estimates we've got indicate that we'll probably lose somewhere around two-thirds of the world's [polar] bears somewhere around mid-century, just based on the simple fact that we're losing sea ice," Andrew Derocher, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Alberta told the BBC. "No sea ice means no seals. And no seals means no polar bears."
Even in areas where polar bears have a chance of persisting, including the Canadian Arctic islands and some coastal areas of northern Greenland, polar bears will face changes they may or may not be able to adapt to, such as change in prey availability or even hybridization with brown bears.
Researchers estimate this majestic and intelligent species could be gone as soon as 2020, according to some estimates. The cause of their loss is due to the profound rise in ivory poaching.
"Between 2010 and 2013, Africa lost an average of 7 percent of its entire elephant population each year, researchers found. Elephant births only boost the population by 5 percent annually, so more elephants are being killed each year than are being born," reports International Business Times.
Losing elephants isn't just about the loss of an iconic species. It's also catastrophic for the ecosystems where elephants live. The massive animals have an equally massive impact on their surroundings. As the group behind World Elephant Day puts it, "The loss of elephants gravely affects many species that depend on elephant-maintained ecosystems and causes major habitat chaos and a weakening to the structure and diversity of nature itself. To lose the elephant is to lose an environmental caretaker and an animal from which we have much to learn."
The primary way to help elephants is to end poaching, including training and properly equipping rangers and, perhaps more importantly, making the purchase of ivory products socially unacceptable.
In need of a bright spot at this point in the list? We have one with this spotted cat, the Amur leopard.
Down to only about 30 individuals in the world as of 2007, conservation efforts since then have helped the species more than double its population to upward of 65 individuals as of a 2015 census. Of these leopards, 57 were seen in Russia's Land of the Leopard National Park. Between protection in wildlife preserves to captive breeding programs, this species still clings to existence.
The Amur leopard isn't out of the woods yet, and there's still a real chance this endangered big cat could be gone in a few decades. But luckily there are pieces of the conservation puzzle in place that are helping this cat potentially escape extinction.
Fewer than 900 mountain gorillas roam high-elevation African forests today. Much of the threat to their future comes from deforestation, encroachment by humans and the spread of human diseases, such as pneumonia and influenza.
Another threat to the species is the inbreeding that comes with living in tiny populations. However, a recent study may cautiously calm scientists’ fears about a lack of genetic diversity. “[R]esearchers are saying that many harmful genetic variations had in fact been removed from the population through inbreeding, and that mountain gorillas are genetically adapting to surviving in small populations,” reports Nature World News.
A positive part of this species’ story is that the number of individuals in some populations are on the rise, thanks to dedicated conservation work. But, as a CNN report cautions, “[D]espite the slowly climbing population in Rwanda, the mountain gorillas' future remains in jeopardy. At last count, there were just 880 left on the planet. 'I'm cautiously optimistic, but I know that their extinction is something that could happen,' said Veronica Vecellio, the Fossey Fund's Rwanda-based research manager."
Yet another big cat in the cross-hairs for extinction — the Siberian tiger, or Amur tiger. When a species becomes low in population, it also becomes low in genetic diversity. Rampant hunting and poaching brought the total population of Amur tigers down to 30 or 40 individuals by 1940. The gene pool has never recovered.
As of a 2011 study, the effective population of wild Amur tigers was just 14 individuals. “Approximately 500 Amur tigers actually survive in the wild, but the effective population is a measure of the genetic diversity of the world's largest cat. Very low diversity means any vulnerability to disease or rare genetic disorders is likely to be passed on to the next generation. So these results paint a grim picture for the tiger's chance of survival,” reports the BBC.
Earlier this year, Smithsonian’s Matthew Shaer wrote of a rehabilitated Siberian tiger released into the wild that just might be the first to mate and have cubs with a wild tiger. If that’s the case, then she might represent the faintest glimmer of hope that the wild Siberian tiger may persist.
The Chinese alligator is one of only two alligator species in the world, and is a miniature version of its cousin, the American alligator. Of this small species, fewer than 120 are left in the wild.
The wild populations declined rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s from habitat fragmentation, pollution from fertilizer and pesticides, secondary poisoning from rodenticides, and from people killing them out of fear or retaliation as the alligators tend to enjoy snacking on ducks raised by local farmers. Also, the burrows the alligators use for winter dormancy can ruin the channel systems constructed for agricultural drainage. The lack of love for the species combined with the lack of habitat means that time is running out for this species.
Though there are thousands of Chinese alligators living in captivity, the species is considered critically endangered because they are almost completely gone from their natural habitats, which is riparian areas that have now become primarily rice paddies. Increasing their numbers is a human-relations issue. Reintroducing captive-bred alligators to the wild — something that began in 2003 — only works if coexistence strategies are put into place simultaneously. And changing minds about living alongside alligators is an uphill battle.
Wildlife Conservation Society China grimly notes, “Unless extreme actions are taken, the Chinese alligator will become extinct in the wild.”
Wild bactrian camel
The wild bactrian camel is a species distinct from the more familiar domesticated bactrian camel. Through there are over 2 million domestic camels in Central Asia, there are only 600 wild bactrian camels in China and an estimated 800 in Mongolia. The species is considered critically endangered.
Those same cousin camels, along with other livestock, compete with the wild camel for food and water — water being an extremely scarce resource in the harsh arid environment where camels live. There are two reserves in the Gobi desert that are home to wild bactrian camels, and a captive breeding program is working to repopulate the species in these areas. However, there are continued threats including poaching (which kills 45 to 50 camels a year in the sanctuaries), difficulty accessing water, hybridization with domestic camels (which results in infertile individuals) and migrating out of the sanctuaries.
These odd but endearing animals may not survive in the wild much longer with the barrage of threats coming at them. But the Wild Camel Protection Foundation isn’t giving up hope. Co-founder John Hare wrote on National Geographic earlier this year: “Time isn’t on their side: Every year in China and Mongolia the threats increase, and natural replenishment of camel numbers is slow… Our goals are to safeguard the wild camel’s unique genetic makeup for future generations and to introduce fresh blood into the wild population by releasing camels we breed into their natural habitat.”
These wonderfully weird and cute animals are the only mammal to have an armor of scales. They’re known for their rolling gait and for rolling into a ball when they feel threatened. There are eight species of pangolins found in Africa and Asia.
Pangolins are gaining recognition but not for a good reason. They are the most trafficked animal in the world with an estimated 100,000 captured every year, representing an incredible 20 percent of the entire wildlife black market. They are captured for their meat or scales, which are used in traditional medicine (though they don’t have proven medicinal properties). Combining the astounding rate at which they are captured as well as habitat loss, pangolin numbers have plummeted and all eight species of pangolin are considered under threat for extinction — and two species are listed as critically endangered.
The up-side to the pangolin’s increased press is that conservation efforts are ramping up. In 2014, the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group launched an action plan that focuses on protecting pangolins in the wild, reducing poaching in local communities, improving the strength of legislation and enforcement, and most importantly, reducing consumer demand. However, the group notes, "Low levels of awareness, insufficient political will, and little investment in pangolin conservation to date makes addressing these threats all the more challenging."
With more than 1 million pangolins taken from the wild over the last 10 years, it will take a dramatic reduction in poaching levels to ensure the pangolin persists for future generations.
Our very own close cousins in the great ape family, the Sumatran orangutan, may lose its presence in the wild in just a few short years. “Extinction in the wild is likely in the next 10 years for Sumatran orangutans and soon after for Bornean orangutans.” states The Orangutan Project.
The key threats to survival for this tree-bound species are logging, fires from clearing land for palm oil plantations, hunting for meat and killing adult females to steal their infants and sell them as pets on the black market.
The species now is found only in a few fragmented populations in the north of Sumatra. Only six of these populations have more than 250 individuals.
“Never before has their very existence been threatened so severely,” states the Orangutan Conservancy. “Economic crisis combined with natural disasters and human abuse of the forest are pushing one of humankind’s closest cousins to extinction.”
Large skipper butterfly
Quite a few butterfly species are on the chopping block thanks to climate change, including this comically cartoon-like large skipper. A 2015 study published in Nature found that several native British butterfly species are at risk of extinction by 2050 due to climate-change-induced droughts. The large skipper is a species sensitive to droughts and struggles to recover after such events. With droughts likely to be more frequent and severe, it’s unlikely the large skipper and similarly sensitive species will be able to cope.
"Those of us who have worked on this for a long time, we did think we had longer," Camille Parmesan, a biologist at Plymouth University in the U.K. who studies climate change's impacts on wildlife, told Inside Climate News. "Emission rates have increased every year, the climate is changing more than we thought and some systems are more sensitive than we thought."
According to the study's researchers, carbon emissions would have to be drastically reduced just to give the species a 50 percent chance of making it to 2100.
Researchers debate on how many plant and animal species, like the large skipper, will be committed to extinction by 2050. Some estimates put it as much as 1 in 10 species while other estimates put it at closer to 25 percent. However, the point is a vast array of them are likely to be gone forever from the wild without significant change.
If there's a time to dive in and start helping, it's now.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in September 2016.