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biodiversity > factfile > flagship species

Flagship species

Posted: 01 Dec 2005

Public concern about biodiversity is often focused on large, well-loved mammals like the tiger, the great apes, rhinos and elephants, pandas and whales. Although campaigns often highlight these "charismatic megafauna", saving them involves protecting their habitat and all the other species that live there. Banning harmful trade, protecting against poachers, effective enforcement, captive breeding, public education, and involvement of local populations in the benefits of eco-tourism, must also play their part.


Giant Pandas are perhaps the most at risk of any of the large mammals.
Giant Panda and cub
© Susan A. Mainka/

Found only in China, one of the world's most populous countries, the loveable giant panda is still one of the most at risk of any of the large mammals despite encouraging results from the latest 2004 survey.

Data from the most comprehensive four-year survey to-date by the State Forestry Administration of China and WWF reveal that there are nearly 1,600 pandas in the wild, over 40 per cent more animals than previously thought to exist. The previous panda survey in 1985 found around 1,100 giant pandas in the wild.

However, it is unlikely the number of pandas in the wild has increased substantially since the last survey. What has changed is much more reliable figures on numbers of pandas and their distribution than ever before.

The survey also found that panda habitat in China has almost doubled from 13,000km² since the last survey in 1985 to 23,049km² today - of which 45 per cent, or 10,400km², is under protection.

However, because the latest survey area was much bigger than the previous one and the methodology used was different, a true comparison of the two habitat areas is not really possible. It is hoped that giant panda habitat will gradually expand, owing to a ban by the Chinese government on commercial logging across the giant pandas� entire range in 1998.

Across the panda's range, habitat is fragmented into more than 20 isolated patches. Within these patches, a network of 40 nature reserves provides protection for 61 per cent of the panda population, or 986 pandas.

Their reliance on bamboo as primary food places them in danger. Different varieties of bamboo undergo periodic die-offs as part of their renewal cycle, forcing the pandas to move in search of new feeding areas. This is often difficult as human settlements and farms have expanded due to China's population growth, so the bears come into direct contact with farmers and poachers.

The panda's very low reproductive capacity makes it more vulnerable to the threats of habitat loss and fragmentation, and poaching, and less capable of recovery from current low numbers.


Originally estimated to number around 100,000 a century ago, the total tiger population today is thought to number between 5,000 and 7,000 individuals.
© Martin Harvey/WWF
Two-thirds of these are Bengal tigers living in the Indian subcontinent. Some 1,800 Indo-Chinese tigers live between Burma and Vietnam. In addition, there are around 500 Sumatran tigers in Sumatra, Indonesia and a similar number of Siberian tigers (also known as Amur) spread across China, Russian and North Korea.

The South China tiger is on the verge of extinction, with only 30 individuals at the most surviving in China. But better news was announced in 2005 about the Amur tiger living in the forests of Russia's Far East. According to a new census last winter these are now increasing in number. Researchers counted about 500 individuals - 334 to 417 adult tigers and 97 to 112 tiger cubs - an indication that a conservation programme begun in the 1990s by the Russian government and environmental groups is working.

However, three sub-species of tiger have become extinct in the last 50 years: Bali tiger, Javan tiger, Caspian tiger

Many places where tigers have been sighted are isolated patches where survival in the long run is threatened. Most tiger populations today consist of fewer than 100 individuals. Inbreeding is common, resulting in genetic deterioration and high vulnerability to epidemics, forest fires, and deforestation.

Until the 1930s, hunting for sport was probably the main cause declines in tiger populations. Between 1940 and the late 1980s, the greatest threat was loss of habitat due to human population expansion, resulting the depletion of the tiger�s natural prey and activities such as logging.

In recent years, a major threat to the tiger's future is poaching for the traditional Chinese medicine trade. In 1991, exports of tiger bone products included 15,079 cartons of tablets, 5,250 kg of liquid medicines, and 31,500 bottles of wine.

Human populations in the major tiger areas are increasing much faster than the average global rate. During the 25 years since Project Tiger was launched in India in 1973, the country's human population has increased by over 300 million, and livestock numbers by over 100 million.

The great apes

Despite dire predictions, ground-breaking work by conservation groups has seen the population of mountains gorillas grow from 620 in 1989 to approximately 674 today. Around half the population live in the Virunga range of volcanic mountains on the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda, and the remaining in the Bwindi-Impenetrable National Park in Uganda.

The total lowland gorilla population (including the Eastern lowland in the lowland and Albertine Rift montane forests of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Western lowland gorilla found mainly in central Africa) number around 115,000 individuals. Nevertheless, the western lowland gorilla is categorized as Endangered because of habitat loss and poaching pressure. The population in Equatorial Guinea is probably Critically Endangered.

The Cross River gorilla is restricted to forested hills on the Nigerian-Cameroon border, more than 250km from the nearest population of western lowland gorillas. It is categorized as Critically Endangered owing to its low numbers and fragmented populations. Perhaps no more than 200 survive, in small isolated populations separated by densely settled farmlands.

There were between one and two million chimpanzees living in 25 African countries in 1960 when Dr Jane Goodall began her famous research in Tanzania. Today only some 150,000 are thought to remain, nearing extinction in 13 countries in Equatorial Africa between 13oN and 7oS. where they have a wide but discontinuous distribution. Their close cousins the bonobos live only in a 350,000 km² area of the Congo basin. No reliable estimates of total numbers are available and total numbers in the wild are probably between 25,000 and 50,000 and are thought to have halved in the last two decades.

Orang-utans are found only in Borneo and Sumatra, and their numbers have declined by 90 per cent over the past century. The total number of wild orang-utans is currently estimated to be less than 25,000 individuals - a decline of 30 per cent to 50 per cent in the last decade. Currently, less than 2 per cent of the estimated original orang-utan habitat is protected. Orang-utan habitat has shrunk by an estimated 80 per cent over the past two decades.

The great apes are under severe threat from a combination of pressures. Loss of forest habitat due to human activities such as commercial logging, mining, farming and encroachment is foremost, followed by poaching for bushmeat, or sale as pets. Poaching is made easier by deforestation, as forests are opened up they are made more easily accessible to hunters, who often sell meat to employees of the logging companies.

In Africa there are additional problems such as the collapse of government services, shortage of funds for protection, corruption, and military action in some of the key states such as Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The recent outbreaks of Ebola in people in Central Africa have also been closely associated with large die-offs of great apes which are also susceptible to the disease. Gorillas are frequently maimed or killed throughout their range by traps and snares intended for other forest animals such as antelope, while orang-utans are threatened by illegal logging, the proliferation of oil palm plantations and widespread forest fires.


Today, all species of rhinoceros are threatened with extinction. The Indian rhino and the white rhino are listed as Endangered in the IUCN's Red List. Black rhinos, Javan rhinos, and Sumatran rhinos are considered Critically Endangered. Very few rhinos of any kind now survive outside national parks and reserves.
© Kenya Wildlife Service/

Northern and southern white rhinos occupy two widely separate ranges in Africa. Northern white rhinos are now found only in Garamba National Park in north-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, although there are unconfirmed reports of a few survivors in southern Sudan. Fewer than 30 northern white rhinos remain, all of them in the Garamba National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo. Efforts to protect them have been severely disrupted because of the ongoing civil war and incursions by poachers coming mainly from Sudan.

After more than a century of protection, southern white rhinos now number more than 8,000, confined to protected areas and private ranches, mainly in southern Africa. The recovery of southern white rhinos from the brink of extinction is a great conservation success story. Today South Africa remains the stronghold for southern white rhinos, with the largest population (over 1,600 animals) found in Hluhluwe/Umfolozi Game Reserve. Smaller populations have been reintroduced to Botswana, Namibia, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe.

The numbers of black rhino were estimated at 70,000 back in the late 1960s, but today they have dropped to around 2,599 in 1998, but numbers are relatively stable as increases in South Africa and Namibia have cancelled out declines in a number of other states. However, two of the recognised sub-species remain threatened, in particular, the West African subspecies which is down to fewer than 5 individuals, all in Cameroon.

In Asia, the Indian, or great one-horned, rhino is a conservation success story and the most numerous of the three Asian species. Thanks to strict protection measures, its few small populations situated in the borderlands of Northeast India and Nepal, has increased from 600 in 1975 to about 2,400 today.

The Sumatran rhino found mainly in the Malay peninsula, Sumatra, and Sabah in Borneo. The total number of individuals is likely to be below 300, a decline of up to 50 per cent over the last 10 years. Because its populations are small and widely scattered, the Sumatran rhino is particularly vulnerable.

The Javan rhino, located on the Ujung Kulon peninsula, in western Java, is probably the rarest large mammal species in the world, and it is on the very brink of extinction. Fewer than 70 individuals probably survive in the wild, and there are none in captivity. A subspecies of the Javan rhino, recently re-discovered in Vietnam, survives only as tiny remnant population clinging to existence.

The greatest threat to rhinos is the demand for rhino horn, used in traditional Asian medicine to treat a variety of ailments including epilepsy, fevers, strokes and AIDS. Although international trade in rhino horn is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the demand for horn remains high. Rhino horn is also used for dagger handles, worn as status symbols mainly in Yemen, though demand in the Middle East has somewhat eased.

Habitat loss is a concern too, especially in south-east Asia and India, as human populations rise and forests are degraded or destroyed for agriculture and commercial logging. Indeed, the construction of logging roads makes rhino habitat more accessible to poachers. Another threat but not so prevalent is the hunting of rhino for meat mainly by tribal people in Vietnam. Protecting rhinos effectively is very expensive and requires a lot of manpower.


Of the African elephant, the smaller, darker, forest elephant is found in the dense tropical moist forests of central and west Africa, while the savanna elephant occurs in the remainder of the range. Significant elephant populations are now confined to well-protected areas.
© D. Lawson/WWF-UK

In 1979, elephant numbers across the continent were estimated at 1.3 million, but there is much controversy over this figure. More recently, the IUCN/SSC African Elephant Specialist Group 1998 population estimates for the whole continent was "definitely" 301,773 African elephants, with a "speculative" total of 487,345. These figures need to be taken with caution, however, for a variety of reasons, including the unknown numbers of elephants in dense forests, and the fact that many areas have not been surveyed.

Although many thousands of domesticated Asian elephants are found in Southeast Asia, this magnificent animal is facing extinction in the wild. Its present distribution covers only a fraction of its former range and the species now generally occurs as scattered, isolated populations from south India and Sri Lanka eastward through Assam to Vietnam and extreme South Yunan Province in China, and south to the islands of Sumatra and Borneo.

It is thought that around 100,000 Asian elephants may have existed at the start of the twentieth century, but today the figures have dwindled to some 35,000 to 50,000 in the wild. India has by far the largest remaining populations of Asian elephant (estimated at around 57 per cent of the total). About a further 16,000 elephants are held in captivity throughout Southeast Asia while there are thought to be approximately 6,000 domesticated elephants in Myanmar alone.

Some elephant populations, especially those in southern Africa, have demonstrated signs of recovery over the last decade. However, poaching for ivory and meat is still a threat to both the African and Asian elephant, despite the "ivory ban" which came into force in 1990.

Remaining elephant habitat is increasingly encroached upon by human settlements and agriculture, leaving many populations fragmented and restricted to isolated protected areas. Many experts believe that there is now no future for the Asian elephant outside protected areas.

As habitats contract and human populations expand, elephant-human conflict is inevitable. Where farms border elephant habitat or cross elephant migration corridors, damage to crops and villages can become common place, providing a source of conflict which the elephants invariably lose. Up to 300 people are killed in India by elephants each year.

Inevitably, loss of life sometimes occurs on both sides, as people get trampled while trying to protect their livelihood, and "problem" elephants get shot by game guards.


Seven out of the 13 great whale species are still endangered or vulnerable after decades of protection. Despite a moratorium on commercial whaling and the declaration of virtually the whole of the Southern Ocean as a whale sanctuary, each year over 1,000 whales are killed for the commercial market.
© J.D. Watt/WWF/Panda Photo

The most seriously endangered is the Northern Atlantic Right Whale, with approximately 300-350 individuals remaining. Co-authors of a study, Masami Fujiwara and Hal Caswell, reported in Nature that the population growth rate of North Atlantic Right whales has declined "below replacement level" because of increased mortality rates of mothers reducing the specie's reproductive strength.

The Northwest Pacific (Asia) gray whale population is Critically Endangered as it is geographically distinct, and is thought to have less than 50 reproductive individuals. This subpopulation was hunted to near extinction and remains severely depleted.

Whales are under threat from a variety of pressures. These include, illegal hunting, permitted hunting for scientific research, collision with ships, entanglement in fishing gear, noise pollution and intensive oil and gas development in feeding grounds. Alarm is also growing over other hazards including toxic contamination, the effects of climate change and habitat degradation. New research reveals that baleen whales are affected by chemicals accumulating in their blubber, which slowly release into their milk when they migrate to winter calving grounds. Pilot whales, still hunted and eaten by the people of the Faeroe Islands, have such high levels of PCBs, pesticides and heavy metal that the Faeroese have been warned to restrict the amount they consume, and to avoid whale liver and kidney.


Marine turtles are one of the oldest creatures on earth, but today most are threatened with extinction as a result of getting caught in fish hooks and nets, as well as from the illegal poaching and sale of turtle shell, leather, and meat. Turtle eggs are also collected in large numbers. As a result, all seven species of marine turtles � hawksbill, green, Kemp�s ridley, Olive ridley, leatherback, flatback, and loggerhead � are listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), while six of the seven species are listed as �Endangered� or �Critically Endangered� by IUCN-The World Conservation Union.

The leatherback turtle has survived for a hundred million years, but is now facing extinction. In the Pacific, their numbers have plummeted in the last 20 years and around 2,300 adult females remain. In the Mediterranean, green turtle numbers have plummeted.

Marine turtles appear to have the potential to reproduce abundantly: females can lay hundreds of eggs in one nesting season. But even under "natural" conditions, relatively few young turtles survive their first year of life. Predators such as crabs, foxes, and birds often kill the hatchlings as they make their way from the nest to the sea, and when they reach the shallows, many more tiny turtles are taken by fish. When humans harvest turtle eggs or disturb nesting beaches through tourism development, the scales become tipped even more heavily against young turtles. A study in Barbados found that, in around half the nests studied, all the hatchling hawksbills crawled inland instead of towards the sea, distracted by the artificial beachfront lighting.

It takes decades for surviving juveniles to reach maturity and start to breed, and adult turtles must live to reproduce over many years if the population is to thrive. Sadly, thousands of turtles are killed as "by-catch" each year, particularly in trawling nets (some estimates are as high as 200,000 to 300,000 annually). In addition, turtles face mortality on the high seas as a result of long-lines of fishing fleets, loss of nesting and feeding habitats, pollution and disease, which means fewer and fewer turtles are living long enough to reproduce.


WWF's Endangered Species

Pachyderm (Rhino & Elephant Journal)

Project Tiger.

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