Article

Silent extinctions

The world’s tallest and fastest animals are disappearing, as are many other species. They need urgent action
By Graeme Green

“Can you imagine Africa without giraffes?” asks Stephanie Fennessy, Director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. It’s a question few people realised we even needed to ask. Giraffes are such a common sight across many of Africa’s landscapes, anyone could be forgiven for thinking they’re doing fine.

“Giraffe numbers have dropped by almost 30 per cent over the past three decades,” Fennessy explains. “There are only about 111,000 giraffe remaining in all of Africa and they’ve gone extinct in at least seven countries already. Most people are shocked when they hear these numbers, as they just assumed giraffe are everywhere. This decline’s happened largely unnoticed.”

The main causes of the decline are habitat loss and fragmentation, while poaching and diseases have impacted giraffe numbers in some parts of Africa too. “As with most wildlife, the main culprits are us humans,” says Fennessy. “There is simply less and less space available for giraffe in the wild.”

“Giraffe were listed as ‘vulnerable’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List in 2016,” she adds. “In comparison, elephants are estimated at around 450,000 in Africa. Most people are seriously concerned about elephants’ future, and rightly so, but let’s put it into perspective with giraffe. Let us worry about giraffe too.” 

Photo by Graeme Green

The disappearance of the world’s tallest animal has been called a ‘silent extinction’. That silence is surprising, as giraffes are such a beloved animal. Why aren’t they receiving the same attention as, say, elephants, rhinos or gorillas? “We’ve been asking ourselves this question for years now and we haven’t found a good answer,” Fennessy admits. “Maybe because giraffe are doing well in most game reserves and national parks. When people go on safari, they tend to see giraffe.

“As giraffe are not widely poached for a body part, like elephant or rhino, there’s no distinct giraffe-poaching crisis that needs to be addressed. Habitat loss is the main issue, and that happens slowly and quietly. It was only when we started to collate their numbers from across Africa that we realised how few there were left.”

This isn’t the only ‘silent extinction’ happening right now. It’s thought we could be losing more than 10,000 species from the planet each year, including creatures we don’t even know exist. The IUCN reported last year that around one million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history. The Earth’s in the throes of a sixth mass extinction event, only this mass extinction event of animals and plants is uniquely caused by human activity.

Photo by Ami Vitale

The death of Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, in Kenya in 2017 was seen around the world, thanks to the pictures of photojournalist Ami Vitale (and there is Jurassic Park-esque science currently being used to bring the species ‘back’ from extinction). Lonesome George, another wildlife icon, made a few headlines when he passed away on the Galapagos Islands in 2012.

But many more animals slip away quietly, unnoticed. In just the last few years, creatures from Indochinese tigers to Corquin robber frogs to the Hawaiian tree snail, were all declared extinct.

What will go next? Around the world, Cross River gorillas, Western Lowland gorillas and Eastern Lowland gorillas, Sumatran rhinos, Sumatran orangutans and Bornean orangutan, black rhinos, Javan rhinos, hooded vultures and Hawksbill turtles are all currently listed as ‘Critically Endangered.’ 

Heard of a saola? Numbers of Vietnam’s little antelope-like animal, known as the Asian unicorn (despite having two horns), have dropped to well under 750. The illegal pet trade has driven the Roti Island snake-necked turtle, endemic to eastern Indonesia, to the brink of extinction. Only a few dozen endangered red wolves, the world’s most endangered canid, remain in the wild in the United States – they could go extinct within five or six years. Ethiopian wolves numbers have plummeted to less than 500.

Sunda tigers, who live in forests on Sumatra, are down to fewer than 400. Amur leopards, another big cat few people have heard of, in the remote east of Russia, are down to 80 left in the wild. Vaquitas, a cetacean found off Mexico’s Baja California peninsula, are thought to be dwindling around 10. From poaching to moving deeper into wildlife habitats for farming, humans are at the heart of all these declines.

All these creatures deserve to exist in their own right. But the 8.7 million or more animals and plants across the planet are also essential to the balance of nature on our planet: healthy forests and oceans, clean air and water. Destroy them, and we destroy the world we live on. As Dr Jane Goodall said in our recent interview: “It is extraordinary that the most intellectual creature ever to walk the planet is destroying its only home. We tend to think of ourselves as separate from the natural world. In fact, we are part of it.”

Photo by Graeme Green

As with giraffes, it’s shocking to learn that cheetahs are also silently, rapidly disappearing from the face of the Earth. It’s another iconic species many people assume are doing fine, another species no one can imagine losing. But numbers have dropped to around 7,100.

“A century ago, cheetahs thrived in numbers over 100,000 across a range that stretched throughout most of Africa through Asia,” explains Dr. Laurie Marker, Executive Director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund. “Today, there are less than 7,100 adult and adolescents remaining, occupying a mere fraction, nine per cent, of their former natural range.

“They’re found in 31 populations in 23 countries, and 20 of these small fragmented populations have less than 100 individuals. It’s only a matter of time before there are too few remaining in many of these populations to save the species from extinction. In Iran, the Asiatic cheetah has dwindled to less than 50. For them, it’s possibly too late.”

Photo by Graeme Green

The cheetah’s the world’s fasted land animal, able to run at speeds up to 70mph. Their stalking prowess, acceleration, speed and incredible eyesight make them the greatest hunter on the savanna and a key player in their ecosystems, their kills helping to feed jackals, hyena, vultures and insects.

Could cheetahs really disappear? “Cheetahs, like giraffes, are on the verge of extinction for a variety of reasons, most having to do with human beings: conflict, habitat loss and loss of prey,” says Marker. “Each of these is now exacerbated by climate change, which is also attributable to people. Many cheetahs are found outside protected areas, so that puts them more in conflict with humans. We’re losing them to human-wildlife conflict, where farmers persecute cheetahs for perceived or actual predation to their livestock, and the illegal wildlife trade. Cheetahs really, really need our help. But there is no quick fix, no easy solution.”

Photo by Graeme Green

Africa’s lions also face an existential crisis, which is particularly shocking as these big cats are a symbol of strength and power. “Over the last 50 years, the number of wild lions across Africa has fallen from 200,000 to an estimated 20,000,” says WildAid’s CEO Peter Knights. “The majority of them live outside protected areas, so they’re vulnerable to habitat loss from growing populations and agricultural expansion, which leads to conflict with humans, especially in areas with livestock, and retaliatory killings or poisonings. There’s also increasing concern about poaching for the bones, for Asian ‘medicine’, and other body parts, like claws, teeth and skins for consumption.”

As well as habitat loss and human-wildlife conflict, the illegal wildlife trade is one of the biggest drivers of population declines across wildlife species. While the trade in ivory, rhino horn and tiger skins have been making headlines for decades, the pangolin – a small, cute, scale-covered little anteater found across Africa and Asia – has quietly become the most trafficked mammal in the world. More than a million are thought to have been trafficked in the last decade.  

“Unfortunately, we have no idea how many of these elusive animals are left in the wild, but the rate of loss is frightening,” Knights admits. “It’s estimated up to 200,000 pangolins are taken from the wild every year across Africa and Asia to meet demand. Their meat’s considered a delicacy by some in China and Vietnam, while their scales and foetuses are used in traditional Chinese ‘medicine’ to treat ailments from arthritis to cancer, despite having no medicinal properties. Pangolins are also used in traditional African bush ‘medicine’. At this rate, it’s very possible pangolins could go extinct within the next two decades.”

Conservationists, photographers and journalists have rallied around pangolins in recent years, raising awareness. But, oddly, it’s the coronavirus that made many people around the world aware of the animal for the first time. According to reports, the cause of the deadly coronavirus that’s spread around the world could have originated from pangolin meat sold in one of China’s wildlife markets in Wuhan. “Chinese scientists have suggested a link between pangolins and the coronavirus,” explains Knights. “There isn’t confirmed evidence yet. Regardless, if it wasn’t the pangolin this time, they could very well be the next carrier unless action’s taken to stop the trafficking. Even before the recent coronavirus outbreak made headlines, scientists thought pangolins could be a good candidate to be an intermediate host for a virus.”

Like the pangolin before them, other creatures are still dying, far from any spotlight. “41 per cent of all amphibian species are faced with extinction, including the tinker frog and the lungless salamander,” says Knights. “That rarely makes headlines.”

Photo by Brent Stirton

It’s often the little-known, less iconic creatures that need attention. “Smaller species have been disappearing at an incredible rate,” says photojournalist Brent Stirton, whose work helped highlight the plight of pangolins globally. “That’s partly because we’re not paying much attention to them, and because a lot of people haven’t actually heard of them. For example, China’s pharmaceutical industry alone uses something like 28 tons of pangolin scales every year. We have no idea how many are left in the wild. So, how can we possibly sanction that?”

“So much of the frog world is disappearing too,” he continues. “Nothing’s really safe at this time. It’s incredible how many seahorses make their way to China and to Vietnam. It’s amazing the amount of consumption without any verifiable scientific back-up, and the amount of misinformation. The vast majority of Chinese people I’ve spoken to tell me that ivory is teeth that grow back.”

The illegal wildlife trade is far from being just an Asian problem, but is seen across Europe, the US and elsewhere. “America has a huge problem with amphibians and reptiles,” says Stirton. “The illegal snake trade is a multi, multi-million dollar industry. A lot of this is about people not being educated on the consequences of their choices.” 

The work of photographers, like Brent Stirton and Ami Vitale, or Steve Winter, Paul Hilton, Britta Jaschinski or Xi Zhinong, has helped shine a light on the world’s silently disappearing species, large and small.

Meanwhile, charities like WildAid work with celebrities, like actors Djimon Hounsou and Angelababy, to communicate messages about the need to protect lions, pangolins and other species.

On the ground, WildAid also work to make sure lions are seen by local people as worth more alive, for ecotourism, than dead, and to mitigate human-wildlife conflict, so less lions are killed by livestock farmers.

Photo from CCF

Likewise, the Cheetah Conservation Fund works with livestock farmers to balance the needs of people and wildlife to stop cheetahs being killed. “Our end goal is to achieve coexistence,” explains Dr Marker. “This is the only way to ensure a permanent place for cheetahs on Earth.”

With giraffes, research and action plans are urgently needed. “There’s still very little known about giraffes, so we need to learn more about their ecology and movements to offer them effective protection,” Fennessy says.  “People need to know about declining giraffe numbers. However, the situation is not all bleak: giraffe numbers in southern Africa are increasing and there are positive giraffe conservation stories happening in East and West Africa.”

Photo by Ami Vitale

In Niger, West African giraffes have been brought back from the brink. “They were poached almost to complete extinction,” explains Ami Vitale, who worked with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation in Niger. “They were down to just 49 left on the planet. This is a very impoverished country with little infrastructure. But the government went into communities and told them, “Look, we only have 49 of these left. We have to protect them.” The communities over the past two decades have been protecting these animals. Now, there are over 600 of them. That is one of the most successful conservation stories of the century.”

It’s a story that shows that no matter how dire a situation, it’s possible to save a species, as long as we act. The last things the world’s animals need is silence and inaction. “We are at a crosswords now, where we see the future unfolding right in front of us,” says Vitale. “We know what’s coming, and, frankly, these animals’ demise is our own demise. To think that somehow we’re separate from nature is the biggest issue I want people to realise. It’s ok to feel despair – we all do. But take that and channel it into what you can do. Right now is the time to act. How can we have a world without these animals? I can’t imagine.”


Giraffe Conservation Foundation: www.giraffeconservation.org.

Cheetah Conservation Fund: www.cheetah.org.

WildAid: www.wildaid.org.

International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN): www.iucn.org.

Brent Stirton: www.brentstirton.com.

Ami Vitale: www.amivitale.com.

Paul Hilton: www.paulhiltonphotography.com.

Cheetah photo (top) by Graeme Green.

Graeme Green is a photographer and journalist: www.graeme-green.com.

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NOTE: The best way to solve the crises facing the planet and its wildlife is by having open, honest, respectful conversations and hearing diverse voices from around the world. The New Big 5 project does not necessarily support or agree with every opinion or idea expressed by photographers, conservationists or organisations featured on the New Big 5 website. The many different wildlife charities, photographers, film-makers and conservationists we’ve collaborated with also do not necessarily support or agree with every idea or opinion expressed by other people or organisations on the website. It’s ok to disagree and debate. But we hope the opinions and ideas can inspire people, make people think, and be part of the conversation to help our planet and the animals that live on it.

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