Endangered Species in the Spotlight
Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens styani)
A red panda photographed by Joel Sartore at Cincinnati Zoo, Ohio. Slightly larger than a domestic cat, these enigmatic bear-like mammals are native to the mountains of Nepal and northern Myanmar (Burma), as well as to central China. Solitary and shy, but skillfully acrobatic, red pandas spend most of their time in trees where their long bushy tails are not only crucial for balance, but act as a wraparound blanket against the cold.
Threatened by poachers, deforestation, and climate change, red panda numbers are falling, with their population estimated to have declined by 50% in the last three generations. Today it’s estimated that fewer than 10,000 individuals survive in the wild, and the species is listed as endangered (IUCN). Efforts are being made to protect red pandas and their habitats, and conservation breeding programs continue.
Blue Poison Dart Frog (Dendrobates tinctorius azureus)
Blue poison dart frogs photographed by Joel Sartore at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, Nebraska. Among the most colorful and toxic creatures on Earth, the blue poison dart frog is found in only a few isolated areas of rainforest in Suriname and northern Brazil. This tiny amphibian is barely two inches long, but its poisonous skin can paralyze or kill and has been used to tip arrows and darts for hunting. The poison is believed to result from the frogs’ diet of ants and other toxic insects, and their bright color serves to ward off predators.
Only discovered in 1969, blue poison dart frogs are believed to be among the most threatened of all the continent’s dart frog species. Extremely sensitive to environmental change, their limited distribution puts them at particular risk. They are also susceptible to the disease chytridiomycosis, which is wiping out amphibian populations around the world. However, with habitats protected and captive breeding programs showing success, there is hope for this tiny frog’s survival.
Thick-billed parrot (Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha)
A thick-billed parrot photographed by Joel Sartore at the World Bird Sanctuary, Missouri. Living in the cold and often snowy pine forests of northern Mexico, the apple-green plumage of these beautiful birds helps them to blend in amid the pines. Intelligent, curious, and social, they are also powerful flyers, able to outmaneuver predators by diving toward the ground and into the trees.
Hunting and logging have combined with disease and illegal trapping to drastically reduce the thick-billed parrot population so that they are currently classed as endangered (IUCN). It is estimated that there could be as few as 1,000 breeding pairs in the wild, with half of these restricted to a precariously small 6,000-acre tract of forest. Despite agreements to limit logging, promote conservation, and encourage sustainable tourism in their habitat, thick-billed parrot numbers remain perilously low.
Gray crowned Crane (Balearica regulorum)
Gray crowned cranes photographed by Joel Sartore at Lincoln Children’s Zoo, Nebraska. As majestic as their name suggests, these large and long-legged gray birds have a spray of stiff golden feathers that form a crown around their heads. Perhaps the most ancient of all cranes, the gray crowned crane will dance and preen with its lifelong mate, building isolated nests in the wetlands of eastern and southern Africa.
Unfortunately, this magnificent bird is a sought-after status symbol for the wealthy, and regular poaching and capture for the illegal pet trade have diminished their numbers. Furthermore, the crane’s habitat is threatened by pollution and development, and this species is listed as endangered (IUCN), with probably less than 33,500 birds left in the wild. Conservation efforts, including an amnesty program that returns captured birds to the wild, are showing signs of success, but there is still more work to do.
Arboreal alligator lizard (Abronia vasconcelosii)
An arboreal alligator lizard photographed by Joel Sartore at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, Nebraska. Ranging in color from teal blue to deep green, they have pale, yellow bellies and yellow-ringed eyes. Tiny and secretive, the arboreal alligator lizard lives in the humid canopy of cloud forests, often 130 feet above the forest floor, where its prehensile tail helps it to climb and navigate through the treetops as it hunts for insects.
Native to the Guatemala, arboreal alligator lizards are listed as vulnerable (IUCN) because deforestation and degradation, largely for agriculture, threaten their habitat. Capture for the pet trade is also a problem. Field research combined with government protection, captive breeding programs, and habitat restoration are helping to preserve these unique animals.
Hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus)
A hyacinth macaw photographed by Joel Sartore at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, Nebraska. Known as the “king of parrots,” the hyacinth macaw has a magnificent four-feet wingspan and a striking cobalt blue and bright-yellow plumage. Native to Brazil, this majestic bird, the largest of all parrots weighing in at around three pounds, is intelligent, extremely social, and pairs for life. But it is also fussy, feeding mainly on the nuts of just a few palm trees, and nesting almost exclusively in the cavities of old Manduvi trees.
Their color and charisma have made the hyacinth macaw a favorite of bird collectors, and through the 1980s around 10,000 were trapped and traded as pets. By 1990, the realization that as few as 1,500 were left in the wild prompted international action. Research, education, and conservation programs are contributing to the recovery of the hyacinth macaw in the wild, although the species is still considered vulnerable (IUCN).
Southern three-banded armadillo (Tolypeutes matacus)
A southern three-banded armadillo photographed by Joel Sartore at Lincoln Children’s Zoo, Nebraska. Indigenous to central South America, these dinosaur-like mammals can be found hiding in dense vegetation where they forage for termites, ants, and fruits. Protected by distinctive plates of leathery armor, three-banded armadillos are unusual in being able to roll themselves into a ball when threatened, making them invulnerable to all but the most powerful predators.
But predators are not the only danger: the southern three-banded armadillo has been classified as a near threatened species (IUCN) as agricultural development transforms its natural habitat from savanna and shrubland to cultivated crops. Its survival chances are further reduced by a low reproductive rate, with females giving birth to just single young each year. Fortunately, the species is showing an ability to adapt to at least low levels of agricultural disturbance.
Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)
A cheetah photographed by Joel Sartore at Lincoln Children’s Zoo, Nebraska. Known as the world’s fastest land mammal, the cheetah can go from 0-60 mph in just three seconds, and can skillfully execute turns at speed to bring down prey. Stealth is equally important for the cheetah’s success, and a yellowish-tan coat and distinctive black spots help it to blend into the high, dry grasses of its hunting grounds.
However, human activity means that those hunting grounds are shrinking. In Africa cheetahs survive in only 10 percent of their historic range, and have almost completely disappeared from Central Asia. This big cat’s population decline is exacerbated by the cheetah’s low reproduction rate: giving birth to fewer offspring means it’s harder for the species to adapt to environmental changes. Today the cheetah is listed as vulnerable (IUCN), and could be heading toward extinction if efforts to increase its gene pool and preserve its habitats fail.
Pygmy slow loris (Nycticebus pygmaeus)
A pygmy slow loris photographed by Joel Sartore at Miller Park Zoo, Illinois. While its big eyes, button nose, and enticingly streaked fur make the pygmy slow loris one of the world’s cutest creatures to humans, to other animals it is a deadly warning. Lorises are the world’s only venomous primates, producing a toxin in their saliva and glands, and it is likely their color and facial markings warn potential predators of this fact.
But their looks have brought the loris an unexpected problem—people want them as pets. Lorises are solitary, nocturnal, tree dwelling creatures that don’t domesticate well; however, a flourishing illegal trade is devastating their populations. Listed as endangered (IUCN), their numbers are in serious decline. Thankfully, growing awareness of their vulnerability, especially through online campaigns, is driving change, and many are being rescued, rehabilitated, and returned to the wild.
Humboldt penguin (Spheniscus humboldti)
Humboldt penguins photographed by Joel Sartore at Lincoln Children’s Zoo, Nebraska. Nesting on the islands and rocky coastline of western South America, Humboldt penguins often congregate in large, noisy colonies of hundreds of birds. Known for their colorful pink faces, these patches of bare skin allow the penguin to expel body heat when temperatures rise – sometimes into triple digits. Their clumsy waddle on land belies an elegant grace in the water as they reach speeds up to 30 mph in the hunt for fish, shrimp, and squid.
But food is a problem for the Humboldt penguin, with pollution, overfishing, and climate change all impacting its availability, and the bird’s conservation status is vulnerable (IUCN). Today, there are fewer than 25,000 mature Humboldt penguins left in the wild. Research has suggested some signs of recovery with breeding birds returning to previously abandoned islands, but this species remains precariously susceptible to the impact of human activity.
Panamanian golden frog (Atelopus zeteki)
Panamanian golden frogs photographed by Joel Sartore at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, Nebraska. Also known by the less flattering name “stubfoot toad,” these tiny frogs are as beautiful as they are rare. A cultural symbol of its native Panama, they have long been revered as a good luck charm. The frogs’ brightly colored orange skin is eye-catching to predators, but most know to leave them alone – the color acts as a warning that it is poisonous to eat.
Threatened by habitat loss and overcollection for tourism and the pet trade, the Panamanian golden frog has recently been hit by the deadly disease chytridiomycosis.
This has wiped out all known populations leaving this species critically endangered (IUCN) and possibly extinct in the wild. However, conservation efforts aimed at protecting the Panamanian frog’s habitat and in captive breeding programs across a number of zoos and aquariums have proved promising.
Golden lion tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia)
A golden lion tamarin photographed by Joel Sartore at Lincoln Children’s Zoo, Nebraska. Named for the majestic mane of golden hair that frames its charismatic dark face, these small, squirrel-sized primates live mostly in the trees of the Atlantic coastal rainforest of Brazil. Here they form social family groups, carrying their young on their backs while foraging for insects, small lizards, and sweet fruits – a task made much easier by their long slender fingers.
Listed as endangered (IUCN), the golden lion tamarin has lost as much as 98 percent of its original habitat in Brazil through the expansion of agriculture, logging, and industry. However, the success of reintroducing captive-bred golden lion tamarins, as well as the translocation of threatened groups and efforts to protect and restore this tiny primate’s habitat, are all contributing to the golden lion tamarin’s chances of survival.