Many of Earth’s wildlife populations are dwindling and human activity is a huge factor as to why their numbers are declining. Animals face habitat loss, climate change, pollution, poaching, trophy hunting and more, making extinction in our lifetime a likely event. The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies animals into one of eight categories: data deficient, least concern, near threatened, vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered, extinct in the wild, and extinct. According to the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, if an animal is listed under extinct in the wild they are “only known to survive in human care.” Without zoos, breeding programs and human intervention the following animals would be facing permanent extinction.
1. South China Tiger
The South China Tiger is the smallest cat in the tiger family. This wild cat faced habitat loss through deforestation, starvation due to the lack of prey, fragmentation when tigers were forcibly relocated from urban to rural locations, and excessive hunting because the Chinese government considered them to be “pests”. By 1987 it was estimated that only 30 to 40 tigers survived in the wild. By 1990 no tigers were directly observed by researchers, but signs of life could be found in eleven reserves. Evidence was limited to finding tracks, animal waste and reports of sightings by locals in the area. In 2001, another survey was conducted in eight protected areas but unfortunately no direct sightings were recorded nor could they find any evidence of tiger activity. The number of tigers in captivity are in the double digits and they are all descendants of six wild cats who were captured in the 1950s to 60s. Low genetic diversity and inbreeding has led to sickly cubs and a low rate of successful breeding making it unlikely for the population to be revived through breeding programs.
2. Scimitar-Horned Oryx
The Scimitar Horned Oryx belongs to the antelope family. They once populated North Africa but climate change, habitat loss and excessive hunting caused this animal to become extinct in the wild in 2000. It is believed that unicorn myths were inspired by this mammal. If one was injured and its horn broke off, it would remain single horned for the rest of its life. Also, from certain angles, their horns line up making it seem like they only have one horn in the middle of their head. In 2016 twenty-one animals were released into the wild after being bred in captivity and in 2017 the first baby calf in twenty years was born in the wild. The herd is still under a close watch but may be reclassified as critically endangered in the future.
3. Barbary Lion
This majestic lion once roamed northern Africa and their habitat ranged from Morocco to Egypt. Barbary lions are best known for their forced participation in gladiator fights at the Roman Coliseum where thousands of lions were exploited and killed for sport and entertainment. hunting, habitat loss, and exploitation forced these lions west into the nations of Algeria and Morocco. Unfortunately, neither country has any surviving wild lions, it is believed that the Barbary lions went extinct in Morocco by 1948 and in Algeria by 1958. Surviving only in captivity, it is also unlikely that the remaining lions are purely of Barbary descent. Globally, there are only approximately 80 of these lions left in captivity.
4. Spix’s Macaw
Spix’s Macaw is a small blue bird native to Brazil. First discovered in 1819, this species was already considered to be rare at the time of discovery. Currently, it is the rarest parrot in the world with only around 100 surviving in captivity. All birds in captivity descend from seven wild birds but even they are believed to only be from two nests. Lack of genetic diversity has led to numerous health problems, sterile chicks, and genetic defects among those in captivity, but nonetheless official breeding facilities worldwide hope to reintroduce the macaw back into the wild by 2021. If you’ve watched “Rio,” an animated movie released in 2011 you will have heard of these birds because the movie features two Spix’s Macaws in lead roles.
5. Alagoas Curassow
The Alagoas Curassow is a large bird that is pheasant like in appearance. They were native to Brazil but now only exist as 130 individuals in captivity. As early as 1951 there were fewer than 60 birds in the wild. Deforestation was the biggest threat to this species with the last large forest in Alagoas being destroyed to produce sugarcane. The Alagoas Curassow has been classified as extinct in the wild since 1984. Habitat loss is a difficult challenge for this bird to overcome because even if breeding programs were successful, they require large areas of forest. Human expansion and over population has only left one possible reintroduction site.
6. Guam Kingfisher
Last, but not least is the Guam Kingfisher who became extinct in the wild by 1988. This vibrant bird was predated to extinction by an invasive snake species. The Brown Tree Snake native to Australia and Papa New Guinea is an aggressive and venomous reptile whose populations swelled to unprecedented numbers due to the lack of natural predators and abundant food sources on the island of Guam. The Guam Kingfisher’s current population is made of less than 200 individuals, all of which live in breeding facilities. Guam hopes to reintroduce the birds to a different Polynesian island until a protected area can be established without the threat of tree snakes. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the Guam Kingfisher will be able to return to its native island as 30 years of management and research has done little to curb the island’s snake population.