While it’s true that more species have gone extinct in the history of life on Earth than currently exist, scientists believe the extinction rate is accelerating, and that we may be to blame. Thousands of species worldwide are at risk of suffering the same fate as the dodo bird, to name one famously extinct species. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature maintains a “Red List” of at-risk species. Certain animals are classified as either “Extinct” or “Extinct in the Wild” (animals found only in captivity), but the next most serious category is “Critically Endangered,” for animals whose populations have decreased by 80 percent in the past three generations. Once a population dwindles to a certain point, its chances of coming back are slim due to a lack of genetic diversity. Here, in no particular order, are 10 species in that Critically Endangered category.
10. Sumatran Rhinoceros
The Sumatran rhinoceros’ most distinctive feature, its horns, is driving the creature to extinction. Powdered rhinoceros horn is highly valued in traditional Asian medicine practices, thought to cure cancer, impotence and other maladies. Rhino horn can fetch more than $100 per gram on the black market, giving poachers plenty of incentive to hunt and kill these creatures (incredibly, brazen thieves have even resorted to cutting horns off museum specimens). The Sumatran rhinoceros is one of five surviving species of modern rhino. Once ranging across southern China, Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, it is now limited to six populations scattered across peninsular Malaysia and the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Currently, the total worldwide population is thought to number less than 275.
9. California Condor
The California Condor is the largest land bird in North America with a wingspan reaching almost 10 feet. Though once populous throughout the American Southwest, settlers and ranchers hunted and poisoned this scavenger until only about two dozen remained in the mid-1980s. Since that time, a breeding program has raised the population to 390 as of early 2012, with the birds’ range limited primarily to northern Baja California and parts of Arizona.
8. Western Lowland Gorilla
A subspecies of the western gorilla, these majestic primates once ranged in great numbers across the Congo River basin area. A primary threat to the gorillas is the Ebola virus, which has decimated the population. It’s not all bad news, however — researchers were surprised to count some 125,000 western lowland gorillas in 2008 in the Republic of Congo, more than twice the number they expected to find.
7. Saiga Antelope
Originally roaming the Eurasian Steppe region and even Pleistocene North America in vast numbers, the saiga antelope is found today only in scattered populations in Russia and Kazakhstan. In a common refrain on this list, the saiga’s horns are very popular in traditional Chinese medicine, which has led to black-market poaching. Even worse, in a two-week period in early 2010, a mysterious disease killed an estimated 12,000 saiga in Kazakhstan, a figure representing roughly one-quarter of the known saiga population. Here is some bitter irony in the animal’s sad demise: In the early 1990s, when more than 1 million saiga roamed the region, the World Wildlife Fund and other conservation groups encouraged hunters to target the antelope, promoting its long horns as a substitute for the horns of endangered rhinoceroses.
6. Red Wolf
Once thought to exist along a range covering much of the Eastern United States and even into Canada, the red wolf is now limited to a few small pockets in eastern North Carolina since being reintroduced there in 1987. Listed as extinct in the wild in 1980, less than 150 red wolves are thought to exist in nature, with an unknown number outside of the introduction area. Hybridization or interbreeding with coyotes and other coyote/dog species is a primary threat to the red wolf’s continued existence.
A species of antelope closely related to the Oryx, Addax once roamed sub-Saharan African in great numbers but are now mostly restricted to a small region in Niger. The population loss is largely the result of poaching by farmers. It is estimated that less than 300 Addax exist today in the wild in Africa. Curiously, an undetermined number of Addax live on scores of big-game ranches in Texas, where despite their endangered status they are popular — and legal — targets for hunters. While animal rights groups are vehemently opposed, even the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has concluded that conservation efforts by ranchers have helped the species to expand its population.
4. Amur Leopard
A large Asian cat species, The Amur leopard once ranged throughout Manchuria, eastern Russia and the Korean peninsula but is now found only in a small region along the Russia/North Korean border. The primary cause of the Amur’s decline is the loss of habitat due to population encroachment and poaching for their spotted coats. Around 175 Amur leopards existed in zoos worldwide as of the end of 2011, but plans are underway to introduce small populations into habitats in Russia.
3. Przewalski’s Horse
A rare success story on this list, this species of Asian horse has made a comeback, from only 31 horses in captivity in 1945, to an estimated number of 1,500 in 2005. Also known as the Asian wild horse, the IUCN upgraded the Przewalski’s horse’s status from Critically Endangered to Endangered in 2011 largely thanks to the efforts of a breeding program in China. Part of the success stems from the fact that the species is genetically similar enough to be bred with domestic horses, hence increasing diversity. In case you’re wondering, the horse owes its name to Russian Col. Nikolai Przewalski, who discovered it in 1879.
Sometimes referred to as the “Asian unicorn,” the saola is one of the world’s rarest mammals. Found only in the Annamite Mountains of Vietnam and Laos, this species was unknown until scientists found the remains of several saola in a Vietnam nature preserve in 1992. The species has thus far failed to survive in captivity. Only a few hundred are thought to exist, and the saola is so rare, it had not been seen in the wild for more than a decade before Laotian villagers captured one in 2010.
1. Iberian Lynx
One of the world’s most endangered species of feline, the Iberian lynx is related to the Eurasian lynx, from which it probably became geographically speciated during the Pleistocene epoch. Now only occupying habitats in Andalucía along the southern coast of Spain, only 220 were estimated to exist in the wild in 2012, down from nearly 100,000 at the beginning of the 20th century. Leading factors in the big cat’s decline are hunters, loss of habitat, and automobiles. Loss of the Iberian lynx would represent the first large cat species to become extinct in the past 10,000 years.