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The Extinction Files


Facts: The extinction files

There are between 5 and 30 million species of flora and fauna. The bulk exist in the tropics - ten one-hectare plots of Borneo rainforest can contain as many species of trees as all of North America. But we are destroying habitat and the biodiversity it sustains at between 1,000 and 10,000 times the rate of extinction before human intervention. Here are some of the better-known species we have driven to the edge of oblivion.

Beluga Whale
Delphinapterus leucas
HABITAT: One of the smallest whales, 4-6 metres long, with adults easily identified by creamy-white skin. Arctic Belugas are threatened (Hudson Bay) or endangered (Ungava Bay) but those in Quebec's St Lawrence River are most in peril.
NUMBERS: A century ago there were 5,000 St Lawrence Belugas. Today's population of approximately 500 is dangerously low.

THREAT: Habitat destruction and reduced food stocks derive from hydroelectric projects and commercial fishing, toxins from boating, extensive dredging, municipal sewage and industrial waste. High concentrations of chemicals and heavy metals have been found in Beluga carcasses since 1982.
CONSERVATION: Hunting was banned in 1979 but pollution remains a grave threat despite a clean-up launched in 1988. St Lawrence Beluga numbers may be too low to recover.

Siberian Crane
Grus leucogeranus
HABITAT: The range of these long pink-legged cranes with snow-white bodies includes: Afghanistan, China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and sometimes Mongolia. Its two spring breeding areas are in the marsh-like terrain of Northern Siberia. Cranes migrate in winter to freshwater wetlands and shallow ponds. Both parents incubate two eggs but usually only one chick reaches adulthood.
NUMBERS: Three known flocks. The largest numbers about 2,700 birds; the smallest is 6.
THREAT: The hunting of cranes on their migratory route in Iran and Afghanistan, and wetland destruction.

CONSERVATION:Eggs laid in captivity hatched in electric incubators at nesting grounds near the Ob River. Chicks are reared by caregivers disguised with hand-puppets and crane costumes.

South American River Turtle
Podocnemis expansa
HABITAT: This large, freshwater omnivore weighs approximately 50 kgs and prefers large rivers, flooded forest and oxbow lakes. Nesting occurs on sandbars or low, sandy beaches. It is found mainly in the Amazon and Orinoco basins.
NUMBERS: Unknown, but listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

THREAT: Exploited by European colonizers for oil. Currently threatened by human encroachment in forests, floodplain clearing and dam construction. It is still hunted for eggs and meat.
CONSERVATION: Some nesting sites are protected, but enforcement is ineffective.With proper management it could be a low-cost renewable food source in northern South America.:

Mountain Gorilla
Gorilla gorilla berengei
HABITAT: All three subspecies of gorillas are threatened, but none as perilously as mountain gorillas which live in the Virunga volcanoes region of Rwanda, Uganda and Zaire. The largest living primate, it is thought to be the most intelligent land animal next to humans. Infant-mortality rates average about 45%.
NUMBERS: Estimated at less than 400 surviving in the wild.
THREAT: The gorilla was first endangered when it was hunted for food. Currently the most serious threat is habitat destruction from human encroachment. Political unrest threatens conservation projects.
CONSERVATION: Trade restrictions have diminished hunting for capture, but laws control rather than prohibit trade in wild gorillas. The Bwindi Forest Reserve in Uganda protects gorillas and their habitat.

Peregrine Falcon
Falco peregrinusanatum (North American)
HABITAT: cliffs, buildings and bridges across continental North America. Numerous sub-species worldwide include the Eurasian peregrine. It hunts in grasslands, meadows and open countryside, as far as 11 kms from its nest. It can fly faster than 96 kms an hour and dive at up to 300 kms an hour to seize prey in its powerful talons.
NUMBERS: About 500 breeding pairs (100 in eastern North America and 400 in the west).
THREAT: DDT and other organochlorine pesticides. At the top of the food chain, all raptors (birds of prey) are highly susceptible to chemical toxins, resulting in egg-shell thinning and breakage.
CONSERVATION: Captive-breeding programs from the early 1970s have re-established peregrines as a breeding species in the east and are restocking populations in the west.
Nests on

Chinese Alligator
Alligator sinensis
HABITAT: This small alligator lives in the wetlands of Anhui (lower Yangzi valley), Zhejiang and Jiangsu Provinces of China. A semi-aquatic reptile, it eats mainly snails, freshwater mussels, fish, insects and small mammals. It hibernates in the winter inburrows in the damp earth.
NUMBERS: Estimated at 500 in the wild. But there are many more in captive populations.
THREAT: Habitat destruction and intentional extermination by expanding human populations. During the flood season many alligators drown while hibernating. Severe drought destroys their wetland homes.
NSERVATION: Protected by the Chinese Government. There are alligator-rearing centres in Anhui and outside China.

Brazilian Rosewood
Dalbergia nigra
HABITAT: Scattered populations in the Atlantic Coastal Forests of Brazil, mainly in fertile hilly areas. A timber tree, prized for expensive furniture, musical instruments and crafts. It grows 15-25 metres high, with a thin trunk of 0.3 to 0.4 metres in diameter.
NUMBERS: Few stands remain.
THREAT: The Atlantic Coastal Forests have been reduced to 5% of their indigenous range and are still being cleared for plantations and mining. Timber cruisers (madereiros) still cut stands for the black market.
CONSERVATION: National law protects Brazil's Atlantic Coastal Forest but no domestic plantations exist to satisfy market demands.

Babyrousa babyrussa
HABITAT: Indonesia, islands of: Sulawesi, Buru, Sula and Togian. This pig-like mammal can be identified by tusks that turn upward towards the forehead. An omnivore and social animal, it inhabits river banks and ponds with abundant water plants in tropicalrainforest.
NUMBERS: In 1978 estimated between 500 and 1,000 ­ counting is difficult because of the Babirusa's shyness and remote habitat.
THREAT: Habitat destruction from logging activity and hunting by locals for food.
ONSERVATION: Legally protected since 1931, but enforcement has been ineffective. Reserves and national parks in Sulawesi, but still poaching. Needs more reserves and new stock for captive populations.

Przewalski's Horse
Equus przewalski
iHABITAT: This last truly wild horse probably now extinct in the wild, although there may be a population in north-eastern Xinjiang. Last wild sighting in 1966. Prefers open grassland, steppe and semi-desert. Differs from domestic horses in shedding erect,long-haired mane.
NUMBERS: Over 1,000 are captive-bred in zoos and reserves.
THREAT: Hunting and loss of grazing land to domestic stock.
CONSERVATION: The captive-bred populations derive from animals captured 80-100 years ago. Loss of genetic diversity from years of inbreeding. A program to return them to the wild has been delayed by political instability.

Asian ('Indian')Elephant
Elephas maximus
HABITAT: The Asian elephant?s range once included most of Asia. Today it is restricted mainly to India and parts of South-east Asia. It requires vast areas to graze, preferably forest with access to water and grass ­ eats up to 150 kgs of vegetation a day. Known as 'modern leviathans', elephants are the only living Proboscidea. Unlike African elephants only some male Asian elephants, and no females, develop tusks.
NUMBERS: Between 34,000 and 54,000.
THREAT: As many Asian elephants are tuskless, poaching is less of a threat than in Africa. Deforestation and clashes with local farmers pose the greater danger.
CONSERVATION: The 1990 ban on the sale of elephant ivory caused the world-market price to plummet.

Caribbean Manatee
Trichechus manatus
HABITAT: Tropical and subtropical coastal waters and rivers of Caribbean and Atlantic Americas. These large aquatic 'sea cows' prefer coves and lagoons to open waters. But often migrate great distances between winter and summer grounds. Graze on sea-grassand can reach weights of 1,600 kgs.
NUMBERS: Exact numbers unknown. Estimated 1992 Florida population: 1,856.
THREAT: Over-hunting, beginning in the 16th century, decimated populations. Now greatest dangers include accidental drownings in fishing nets and death from boat collision (especially in Florida).
CONSERVATION: Throughout range ­ research, management and public education. In Florida, manatee-protection zones and refuges.

Proboscis Monkey
Nasalis larvatus
HABITAT: Mangrove swamp, peat swamp and riverine forest on Borneo. Its name comes from the adult male?s large, tongue-shaped nose, which is as long as 10 cms. The Proboscis sleeps in trees; partially webbed hind feet make it a good swimmer.
NUMBERS: Rapidly declining. The 1986 population of 250,000 is now less than 5,000.
THREAT: Land clearing for settlement, river pollution, and poaching and hunting for meat.
CONSERVATION: Samunsam Wildlife Sanctuary and Tanjung Puting National Park are studying ways to reduce hunting. Populations are established at Kutai National Park in Kalimantan.

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Issue 288 Contents
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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1997


New Internationalist issue 288 magazine cover This article is from the March 1997 issue of New Internationalist.
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