What exactly is an endangered species?
If an animal becomes very small in numbers then it is called endangered. The reason endangered species are of concern to many people is that they are at risk of becoming extinct, which means they will die out altogether, never to be seen again.
The world is constantly changing and extinction has always been a natural part of evolution. Scientists agree that the dinosaurs died out, or became “extinct”, naturally and that other animal species have died out in this way. But as the human population has increased rapidly, so has the rate of extinction and the number of endangered animals and plants.
This has happened in particular over the past 400 years, with the rate of endangered species rising rapidly since 1900, along with the human population. This has led most scientists to agree that the effect humans have had on the planet has led to some species becoming endangered or even extinct, unnaturally.
How do humans affect other living things?
One of the biggest effects humans have had on the planet and on other living things is taking up space. The more we grow as a species, the more space we take up and take away from other living things.
This effect was heightened and speeded up by the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century which saw the emergence of machinery and equipment that could make life much easier for humankind. This included the construction of buildings and roads.
This means that areas that were once the natural habitat for a species of animal might now be a major motorway or a bustling city.
As well as taking up space rapidly and building over natural habitats, the Industrial Revolution brought with it many new pollutants which have damaged the planet. Chemicals and waste have made some areas unfit for wildlife. This has had the effect of making some species endangered, as they are pushed out of their homes and have less space to live and breed.
Another way in which humans have contributed to some species becoming endangered is by hunting and killing them.
Humans have killed animals for meat and fur since they first walked the earth, but modern times have brought new ways to kill animals on a much larger scale, such as guns and large modern shipping equipment. Humans kill animals for meat, clothing, medicines, eggs, trophies, souvenirs and “sport” or for the live pet trade.
It is this kind of long term killing that has seen many creatures become endangered at the hands of humans.
Sadly, the rarer the animal, the more sought-after the fur or souvenir and therefore the more valuable the catch and kill.
If someone is prepared to pay a huge amount of money for an ivory carving made from the tusks of a rare elephant, for example, then there will be competition to provide that ivory by killing the elephant. This will eventually lead to even fewer elephants and the risk of the species becoming endangered and then extinct.
This is something which has actually happened; the trade in ivory saw the animals that were hunted for their tusks (mostly elephants, walruses and hippopotamuses) dwindle in numbers. As a result a worldwide Ivory Trade Ban was introduced in 1989.
What other species are endangered?
One of the most threatened types of animal in the UK is the humble bat.
There are fourteen different species of bat in Britain and all are endangered, but the Greater Horseshoe Bat is the rarest of the lot. The reason it is so rare is that its natural roosting spots – hollow trees and old buildings – are often destroyed. Their food source is also affected by humans; bats like to eat insects which we often kill first with insecticides to protect plants and crops.
Other highly endangered animals around the world include the Mountain Gorilla, Siberian Tigers, Blue Whales and Lion-tailed Macaque Monkeys.
There are many more than just these examples though. In fact, there are thought to be over 12 thousand species of endangered animals on the planet at the moment!
From endangered to extinct?
If an animal is endangered it is at risk of becoming lower and lower in numbers until the species dies out completely and is extinct. When a species becomes extinct, it is lost forever; that particular species will never, ever be seen on Earth again.
Humans have been known to cause species of animal to become extinct in the past, like the dodo.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “dead as a dodo” which refers to the fact that the dodo bird is now completely extinct. Unlike dinosaurs, the dodo did not die out naturally; it became extinct as a result of human intervention.
When sailors first discovered dodos on the island of Mauritius (in the 17th century) they killed them for food and the animals that the sailors had introduced to the island (such as dogs, cats, rats and pigs) ate the baby dodos and dodo eggs. The dodo was unused to predators and became extinct by 1681.
Not all animals that are endangered necessarily become extinct though.
US wolves were removed from the endangered lists in three American states in January 2007. Hunting meant that wolves in the US had become endangered by the 1970’s, but the conservation programme that was put into place has so far proved very successful.
A conservation programme works to protect a species from becoming extinct by building up its numbers.
Why does it matter?
You don’t have to be an animal lover to take an interest in conservation and endangered species. It is important for the planet in general to have a large amount of what scientist call biodiversity. Biodiversity is the number of different species of life (including plants, insects, mammals, birds, fish and bacteria) on our planet.
The theory is that the more diversity of life, the less chance there is of a disease or natural or manmade disaster leaving a gap in the animal world. If all the cows in the world were exactly the same, a single disease could kill them all and you’d have no more beef burgers! As there are hundreds of different types of cows, this is less likely to happen.
This is why maintaining biodiversity is important to everyone.
Conservationists warn that it is important not to over hunt animals or continue destroying rainforests if we want to avoid more animal species becoming endangered and possibly extinct.
Who can help?
The Direct Gov website has an interesting section about wildlife and conservation called Nature under Threat.
View images of life on earth at www.arkive.org/.