Extinct: which animals could we lose forever in 2017?
When a cheetah sprints, there is nothing on Earth that can touch it. The big cat’s hind legs heave forward, kicking up dust, while its front paws bounce off the ground. A few years ago, a cheetah at full pelt clocked 64mph, covering 100m in just 5.95 seconds. Usain Bolt’s world record for the same distance is 9.58 seconds. Not for nothing is the world’s fastest land mammal called a 'polka-dotted missile’.
Yet for all its untouchable talent, man is now beating beast. A report released last week by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) revealed that the cheetah is racing towards extinction. Today there are just 7,100 in the wild, a figure that has halved since 1975. Over the next 15 years, that may be further reduced by 53 per cent.
The cheetah’s is a familiar tale. Its wide hunting range means they come into contact with humans outside of protected national parks. Their skin and meat is prized by poachers, while cubs are targeted by traffickers to sell as status symbols in the Middle East.
Speaking to the Telegraph from the Serengeti, Dr Sarah Durant, lead author of the ZSL research, fears there are countries where whole cheetah populations will be wiped out in 2017. “Some are hanging by a thread,” she says.
Today, the cheetah occupies just nine per cent of its historic range, confined predominantly to southern Africa. The few remaining in central Niger and Zimbabwe could go this year. And the once widespread Asiatic cheetah has been reduced to fewer than 50 individuals in one isolated pocket of Iran.
“I am worried the cheetah will go extinct,” Dr Durant says. “This is a wake up call.”
While the cheetah should survive the next 12 months, other species will not be so lucky. A major study released by the ZSL and WWF (World Wildlife Fund) in October revealed the number of wild animals living on Earth is set to fall two-thirds by 2020. Animal populations plummeted by 58 per cent between 1970 and 2012, with losses on track to reach 67 per cent over the next three years.
Destruction of wild habitats, hunting and pollution are all to blame. This year, the mass extinction is feared to march on apace. A 'red list’ of endangered species compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) features 82,954 animals and plants, with almost a third threatened with being wiped out completely.
The world’s last three northern white rhinos remain under 24-hour armed guard in Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. The beasts, two females and a male, were transferred from a Czech zoo in 2009 with another male, Suni, who died in 2014. As recently as 1960, there were more than 2,000 northern white rhinos. But poaching - most recently to feed the demand from the Far East for rhino horn - has put paid to that. The only male left, Sudan, 43, has already had his horn removed to make him less valuable to poachers, and is weakening by the day. Attempts to encourage the trio to breed have proved unsuccessful.
Also at risk from poachers are the last remaining 21 giant tusked bull elephants, which feature on the IUCN red list.
Similarly endangered is the pangolin, an ancient scaly creature which subsists on ants, and is prized in Asia for its meat. Sir David Attenborough counts pangolins among the 10 animals he would include on his own personal Noah’s ark. But as the Duke of Cambridge noted recently, “The humble pangolin… runs the risk of becoming extinct before most of us have even heard of it.”
The world’s smallest porpoise, the vaquita, may also vanish this year. Only 60 individuals are left in the Gulf of California – a 92 per cent drop since 1997. China’s Yangtze river dolphin is already feared gone.
There’s also bad news for great apes. Four out of six species are now critically endangered: the eastern gorilla, western gorilla, Bornean orangutan and Sumatran orangutan. Numbers of eastern gorillas - the world’s largest primate - have declined by 70 per cent in the last 20 years and it was placed on the red list in September.
But 2016 brought better news for giant pandas, as the animal was downgraded from 'endangered’ to 'vulnerable’, thanks to a population rebound in China, after decades of work by conservationists.
Latest estimates suggest the overall population is now 2,060, though that number could fall again, as climate change scientists predict over a third of the animal’s bamboo habitat will be wiped out in 80 years.
Britain is far from immune to the world’s wildlife crisis. The annual State of Nature report, compiled by 53 wildlife organisations in the UK and published in October, reported 1,199 species on the red list - compared to 755 three years ago.
Newly added creatures include the Kentish snake millipede, mole cricket, necklace ground beetle and yellow pogonus, a small sand beetle found in salty marshes. They are names many of us have never heard, but their disappearance could have a calamitous effect.
The decline of sand eels, for example, has led to a crash in puffin populations, now also at risk of extinction in Britain. Since 2003, some 8,000 British species have declined by 53 per cent; among them hedgehogs, natterjack toads, great crested newts, water voles, turtle doves and nightingales. The hen harrier is down to a handful of birds, while fewer than 100 Scottish wildcats now exist outside captivity.
But there is hope.
Jeff Ollerton, a biodiversity professor at the University of Northampton and bee specialist, has monitored a shocking decline over his career. In 1990, when he began his PhD, a rare mining bee became extinct in Britain. Since then several species have been reduced to a tiny few, such as the six-banded nomad bee and the hairy-horned mason bee.
The great yellow bumblebee is now extinct in Wales, Northern Ireland, and England. In the past couple of years, though, the once extinct short-haired bumblebee has been successfully reintroduced into Britain from Sweden. Last week, it was reported that European scientists are edging closer to bringing aurochs - a primitive wild cattle that once roamed wild forests - back from extinction via a process known as 'back breeding, selectively mating the beast’s closest living relatives.
Professor Ollerton believes more species could follow. Improving biodiversity on agricultural land, which covers 75 per cent of Britain, is key. So too, keeping parks and gardens wild.
“There is increasing public awareness that we need to conserve Britain’s biodiversity,” he says. “Also most of our extinct species still occur on the continent and could be reintroduced if appropriate habitats were found.” Creating enclosed spaces for nature, he admits, is not enough. Rather humans need to develop better ways of co-existing with animals.
Back on the plains of Serengeti, Dr Durant agrees. “If we have nature in one place and people in another that is a recipe for disaster,” she says. “People do cause problems for wildlife but they can also be part of the solution.”