14 species that need urgent attention, as chosen by leading conservation experts

Rhinos, elephants, tigers and, lately, pangolins have dominated the headlines. But there are many other species that require urgent attention
By Graeme Green

We asked some of the world’s leading conservationists, from organisations including African Parks, WWF Africa, Oceana, Fauna & Flora International and Endangered Wildlife Trust, to highlight species that need the global spotlight, before it’s too late…

1: African grey parrot

By Peter Fearnhead (CEO, African Parks)

Photo by Marcus Westberg

The African grey parrot is particularly imperilled by the same threats that risk the loss of tens of thousands of other species from wild ecosystems. They’re one of the world’s most heavily trafficked wild birds, with millions having been taken for the exotic pet trade. They’re further threatened by the loss of habitat, due to severe deforestation in equatorial Africa. Human activities, including logging for timber and fuelwood, mining and agricultural expansion, are having significant impacts in some of the areas with the largest remaining populations of parrots. 

Tragically, these spectacular birds, which were once abundant across central and west Africa’s forests, are now facing population collapse. The fate of the African grey parrot, like so many other species, is tied to the fate of their wild habitats, and to our actions to enforce policies and ensure the effective conservation management of the landscapes in which they persist.

2: King cobra

By Michael Starkey (Founder / Executive Director, Save The Snakes)

Photo from Save The Snakes

With its impressive size and fascinating features, the king cobra is arguably the most iconic snake species. At 18 feet long, it’s also the longest venomous snake species in the world. King cobras thrive in large forests throughout South and South-east Asia. King cobras are shy and prefer not to interact with humans, but because of persecution, overharvesting, and loss of their forest habitat, these snakes are under threat of extinction.

Researchers and wildlife conservationists are determined to save this incredible snake, before it’s too late. While traveling in western India, I was incredibly fortunate to attend a snake rescue call. A nearly four-metre-long king cobra had ventured from the forest into a farmer’s barn in pursuit of its favourite prey: other snakes. The farmer knew king cobras are a threatened species and critically important for maintaining balance in the ecosystem. Rather than kill it, he called wildlife conservationists to come and relocate the snake. Through community outreach and education, conflict between humans and snakes can be avoided and threatened snakes can be saved.

3: Maned sloth

By Rebecca Cliffe (Founder / Executive Director, Sloth Conservation Foundation)

Photo from Sloth Conservation Foundation

Maned sloths can only be found in a small strip of forest on the Atlantic coast of Brazil. They’re the most endangered species among the continental sloths. Boasting a spectacular mane of long black hair and brown fuzzy fur, which makes them look remarkably like a coconut with a mullet, these elusive creatures look and behave very differently to other species of three-fingered sloth, with current research suggesting that they separated off from the other species approximately 19 million years ago.

Very little is known about maned sloth behaviour, and they’re slipping silently towards extinction due to habitat loss and poaching. Over 93 per cent of their range has been deforested and the remaining forest reserves where they live are extremely fragmented and isolated.

4: Ploughshare tortoise

By Alice Ruhweza (Africa Region Director, WWF)

Photo by Martin Mandak / WWF Africa

Tortoises are an interesting, and often overlooked component of biodiversity of Madagascar. One of the species that I think is particularly special is the beautiful Ploughshare tortoise, known locally as Angonoky. Angonoky, the largest tortoise among the five endemic tortoise species found in the country and one of the 25 most endangered tortoise species in the world, is in the unenviable position of being both extremely rare and highly threatened.

They have a beautiful, colourful domed shell. The remaining natural population is estimated to be around 100 mature adults, all in the Baly Bay national park in northwestern Madagascar, suggesting these tortoises are teetering on the brink of extinction. They’ve been driven to the edge by over-exploitation for local consumption and the seemingly insatiable appetite of the illegal international pet trade

But there is hope. We must work together to broaden global awareness of the unsustainable trade in endangered pets. We need to seek out solutions to reduce the demand, tackle the illegal trade, and support the government of Madagascar in its commitment to enforce policies and follow up on illegal activities to bring this beautiful tortoise back from the brink. 

5: North Atlantic right whale

By Andrew Sharpless (CEO, Oceana)

Photo by Lisa Conger and Elizabeth Josephson / Oceana

North Atlantic right whales are one of the most endangered large whales on the planet. Only about 360 of them remain, including roughly 80 breeding females. Their name foretells their demise; they were known for being the ‘right’ whale to hunt mostly because they float when killed, so they were easier targets.

Now they remain on the brink of extinction because of fatal entanglements with fishing gear and vessel strikes. If we want to save this species, we must reduce the number of vertical lines in the water, largely from lobster pots, and we must require ships to slow down. If we don’t act fast, a large whale species will go extinct in the Atlantic ocean for the first time in centuries.

6: Large blue butterfly

By Julie Williams (CEO, Butterfly Conservation)

Photo by Keith Warmington / Butterfly Conservation

Butterflies and moths form a vital part of fragile ecosystems as pollinators, plant eaters and food for birds and mammals. They’re an effective ‘litmus test’ on the health of our environment. Under threat from human factors, including poor land management, pesticides, over-development and climate change, we know that over 76 per cent of butterflies have declined in the last 40 years in the UK. Nature is suffering as a result.

One particular favourite of mine is the large blue butterfly, not only because it’s a gorgeous species with vibrant blue colouring, but because, after going completely extinct in the UK in 1979, the species has made a comeback. Thanks to a combination of research and painstaking conservation work, there’s new hope for this species to flourish again in the UK’s countryside, though it’s still early days and they remain very much endangered.

The large blue butterfly is declining throughout the world. But successes like this one bring hope.

7: Cheetah

By Thomas Lovejoy (Senior Fellow, United Nations Foundation)

Photo by Graeme Green

I took care of a cheetah when I was 15 years old. That tells you how gentle they can be. This was at a place called the Millbrook School in New York, which has a zoo. That’s what started me on my way in conservation.

The cheetah is the fastest land animal. They’re sprinters, rather than long distance runners. They also, for reasons that aren’t totally understood, have a very narrow genetic base. They went through a narrowing and lost a lot of their genetic variability.

There are people around the world who love cheetahs and work towards their conservation. But as the big open areas become more and more limited, there’s less and less space for them in the wild. The numbers are very low, around 7000. Habitat loss is a huge threat facing so many animals. Cheetah cubs are also taken and sold as pets in the illegal wildlife trade. We’re going to need to be more and more creative in thinking about how to support cheetah populations going forward.

8: White-backed vulture

By Yolan Fridmann, (CEO, Endangered Wildlife Trust)

Photo by Lance van der Vyver

Africa’s remarkable white-backed vultures are iconic, awe-inspiring birds and symbols of a healthy African wilderness. They provide critical ecosystem services by cleaning up carcasses and other organic waste, which reduces the spread of disease in wild and domestic animals, as well as the transmission of pathogens to humans.

But the great birds are in trouble. Today, these icons have disappeared across large portions of their distribution. The species is listed by the IUCN as globally Critically Endangered, with poisoning the primary threat. Southern Africa is the epicentre for large-scale poisoning where the birds are targeted directly for the illegal wildlife trade or poisoned by poachers, as they act as sentinels, giving away the location of poached carcasses to rangers. These deaths are compounded by human-wildlife conflict, with vultures the unintended victims of poison baits left out for carnivores, scavengers and large herbivores. White-backed vultures are also poisoned indirectly by lead consumed from carcasses shot using lead ammunition.

Africa’s experiencing a vulture crisis. If we don’t act immediately, Africa will lose its vultures and the vital ecosystem services they provide. The protection of these symbols of wild Africa has never been more critically needed.

9: Chameleon

By Kaddu Sebunya (CEO, African Wildlife Foundation)

Photo by Billy Dodson / AWF

The chameleon is a small animal I grew up with in our yard. We used to see them all the time. As we were recently confined at home because of Covid with my children for three months, I told them about chameleons and how we used to play with them. We spent three months looking for chameleons on the farm where we were, and we couldn’t find one. It shocked me because growing up in Uganda, they were everywhere. They were a nuisance, in some ways. But I couldn’t find one in about 2000 acres of land. Zero.

Climate change is the main reason – climate change, drought and the rise of temperature affects them big time. Agriculture is also a big issue, especially pesticides, because chameleons feed on flies and small insects – when people start using pesticides, they kill the flies and food.

The other issue is that chameleons are also exported as pets. The United States is the largest market for chameleons as pets. That is something that the world could look at and try to change.

10: Siamese crocodile

By Mark Rose (CEO, Fauna & Flora International)

Photo by Jeremy Holden / FFI

I’ve had a soft spot for crocodiles ever since I worked as a district wildlife officer in Papua New Guinea. Like sharks, crocodiles tend to be given a bad press, from alligators in the Everglades to the wildebeest-grabbing Nile crocs dominate the headlines. But few people have even heard of the critically endangered Siamese crocodile.

This little-known reptile was once widespread in the wetlands of Southeast Asia, but has disappeared from 99 per cent of its former range and was feared to be extinct in the wild until an FFI-led survey team rediscovered it in Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains. The local indigenous people revere this reptile, and its taboo to kill or hurt one. Unfortunately, the Siamese crocodile hasn’t been afforded that level of care in the wider world. Today, it’s one of the world’s rarest reptiles.

The explosion in commercial hunting and large-scale crocodile farming in the 1950s, to supply the international skin trade, drove the species to the brink. They’re also under severe pressure from poaching, habitat loss, accidental entanglement in fishing gear, and the construction of hydroelectric dams. Community-led monitoring and anti-poaching activities are helping protect key breeding sites, and we’re bolstering the surviving population through a captive-breeding and reintroduction programme.

11: Dung beetle

By Helen Roy (President, Royal Entomological Society)

Photo by Chris Collingridge / Royal Entomological Society

Dung beetles are heroic nutrient-recyclers. It’s estimated that more than 100 billion kilograms of dung are produced by animals daily around the world. Invertebrates play a major role, alongside bacteria and fungi, in breaking this material down. It’s one of the many important contributions that insects make to people.

Like many insects, dung beetles are threatened by some of the actions of people, including some livestock farming practices. Anti-parasite treatments given to cattle make it into the dung and are toxic to the beetles.

There are over 2000 known species of dung beetle in Africa. They range in size from a tiny 2mm to 65mm, which is big for an insect. They’re deserving of our appreciation for the tidying up they do. Their activity improves soil health and reduces the nuisance of flies and parasites that would otherwise be living in the dung. There is so much more to discover about these incredible insects and their importance in maintaining the healthy functioning of our natural world.

12: Great hornbill

By Suwanna Gauntlett (CEO, Wildlife Alliance)

Photo from Wildlife Alliance

The great hornbill, a large Asian hornbill species, is known for its bright yellow bill and casque. Sadly, they’re threatened with extinction, with as few as 13,000 left in the wild. Adults mate for life, forming bonds by singing duets. After breeding, the female remains in a nest cavity which is sealed to leave only a slit through which the male feeds her. The birds nest in large trees, which are targeted by loggers. Other threats include poaching for their casque and the illegal pet trade, where mothers are killed and chicks taken from nests.

They’re found across Asia, in the forests of India, Nepal and South-east Asia. In Cambodia, the Cardamom Rainforest Landscape is a key habitat for great hornbill conservation. We urgently need to reduce threats and rescue birds, which will bring hope for this beautiful species.

13: Attenborough’s Killifish

By Mike Baltzer (Executive Director, Shoal)

Photo by Běla Nagy / Shoal

The Attenborough’s Killifish is a stunningly beautiful fish, named in recognition of Sir David Attenborough’s efforts to promote biophilia, was only described for the first time in 2020, after it was found in a pool of water in a roadside culvert near to Lake Victoria in the Serengeti-Mara region of Tanzania. This tiny, sparkling jewel of a fish had gone unnoticed in one of the world’s most visited wild landscapes.

With over 1,270 species, killifish are a remarkable group of fish. They’re often found in very extreme habitats, such as small seasonal pools in deserts, and they famously breed in the flooded footprints of elephants. The killifish stay dormant as eggs during periods of drought and then live for as little as nine months when the rain comes. One species has been recorded to have a complete life cycle in just 14 days.

Unfortunately, killifishes’ small, seasonal habitat means they face major threats from habitat loss, and Attenborough’s Killifish is no exception. It’s a wonderful representative of the beauty and extraordinary diversity of freshwater fish that have been largely overlooked and neglected but deserve our attention.

14: Huemul

By Kristine Tompkins (CEO, Tompkins Conservation)

Photo by James Alfaro / Tompkins Conservation

The huemul deer is the most endangered large mammal in the southern hemisphere. There are only around 1700 huemul left. They look like a mule deer but they’re an emblematic species for Chile and Argentina, and here they are, almost gone. They’re very tame deer. There’s evidence that huemul were previously killed by hatchet because they came so close, as they didn’t develop that fear.

It would be great to see more of them. As well as expanding protected territory to assist populations of extremely endangered huemul deer and patching together the hotspots where huemel are found, we need to safeguard huemul in lands that are not parks against the threat of dog attacks and livestock, which can transmit disease.

I believe all life has intrinsic value. Once you dedicate yourself to a certain region, you figure out who’s missing, and that means making decisions to try to unwind that. You can make all the scientific rationales for bringing something back, but it’s an emotional love of imagining a place really functioning as it should, like wolves in Yellowstone or Iberian lynx in Spain.

Cheetah photo top by Graeme Green

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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