In the second week of July 2021, animal lovers were greeted with good news. The giant panda, China’s most iconic animal, had officially shifted from “threatened” to “vulnerable” on the Conservation Scale. Decades of intentional conservation efforts on their end had finally paid off — A small win maybe, but a giant step in the right direction. They have laid an example for other nations (especially outside Asia) to follow. It’s therefore fitting that we bring to our attention the threatened animals on our beloved continent with the hope that something is stirred within us that may, in the long run, be an asset in their fight for survival. Below are some of Africa’s most endangered beasts.
The Ethiopian Wolf
Also known as the Simien fox, the Ethiopian wolf is Africa’s most endangered carnivore. Ethiopian wolves are native to the Afro-alpine habitat of the Ethiopian highlands, with an estimated population of less than 400 roaming free in the wild. A distinct red coat with white markings, an elongated muzzle, a slim body and long legs are the typical physical features of an Ethiopian wolf. These animals are no bigger than coyotes, although their relatively longer muzzles and unique coat set them apart from their American relatives. Like their North American namesakes, they live in packs with well-defined hierarchies and exhibit similar reproductive behaviours. However, unlike the latter (and other canids) who prey on anything that pops up on the menu, they are pickier. They prey on rodents predominantly, such as the big-headed African mole-rat, a far cry from what their intimidating name may suggest. Some have even tagged them “glorified foxes.”
Habitat loss, clashes with humans, and the tainting of their gene pool by interbreeding with dogs have been the major threats to their survival. However, with concerned agencies stepping up to conserve these species, the future looks less bleak for these unique animals.
The pangolin is another threatened species on the verge of extinction. It is renowned for
- the armoury of sharp scales that covers its body,
- its distinctive way of rolling into a ball when threatened, and
- the skunk-like glands near its anus that squirt a repugnant chemical when it’s threatened
All these features culminate in a formidable self-defence mechanism that effectively wards off predators and other threats. There are four pangolin subspecies in Africa; others are found in Asia. Pangolins are exclusively insectivorous. They are also known as scaly anteaters, and for a good reason too. Ants and termites make up a large chunk of a pangolins’ diet- thanks to their long sticky tongues and limbs (well adapted for burrowing). It’s worthy of note that pangolins do not have teeth. They “grind” their food by swallowing small stones (gastroliths) after their meals to aid digestion. They also feed on insect larvae. Some pangolins are arboreal, while some are ground-dwelling.
All pangolin species are tagged “threatened” by IUCN. The major determinant factors have been habitat loss (deforestation) and overhunting for food and medicine (their scales are believed to have healing properties — an unproven claim). They are the most trafficked animals in the world.
Attempts at creating stable populations of pangolins in captivity have been largely unsuccessful in recent times, mainly due to their inability to acclimatize to the artificial conditions of human encampments. Apparently, they have fragile immune systems. However, with increasing efforts aimed at naturalizing encampment conditions, there may be some hope after all for these animals in captivity, and ultimately, in the wild.
The Northern White Rhino
The Northern White Rhino is one of the extant subspecies of white rhinos on the African continent. Like other rhinos, they are tusked herbivorous colossuses whose adults weigh well over a ton (or two, in some cases), making them the third-largest animals in Africa, just behind the African elephant and the Hippopotamus.
Technically, they are functionally extinct. The last known male, Sudan, passed away in 2018, leaving two females remaining in the world. However, scientists have attempted to use assisted reproduction in recent years to increase Northern White Rhino numbers, using natural rhino gametes and induced pluripotent cells. They have successfully created a few viable embryos and are considering implanting them in other white rhinos (surrogacy). With our fingers crossed, we hope their efforts are ultimately successful. It would be a massive plus to the animal kingdom and perhaps be the first of many conservation efforts using this technique if their actions come to fruition.
The Mountain Gorilla
The world’s largest primate’s current fate is no different too. Over the years, poaching, disease and habitat loss have been enormous problems for the great apes. They’ve been hunted for their meat, their young hijacked from them to be sold as pets (some adults losing their lives in the process), and even their hands and feet are being collected by some people (for whatever reasons). Habitat loss and disease are also crucial factors that have brought their numbers so low. However, with conservation efforts, their numbers have come up to about 1000. The low genetic variation in their gene pool has been a stumbling block to conservationists (there are just two communities to work with, so to say). Nonetheless, we hope for the best for these species. If conservationists, aided by the government, intensify their efforts to prevent human encroachment and prevent hunting, amidst other things they may be doing, the future is bright for these animals.
African wild dogs
Africa’s largest wild canids are renowned for their boundless stamina, efficient hunting technique, and their unmistakable appearance — skinny, large-eared with fur covered in blotches of various shades of black, white and tan. By the way, hyenas are not dogs, in case you’re wondering why African wild dogs are the largest canids. They have carved for themselves an untouchable niche in the African ecosystem. Sadly, this coverage of this niche appears to be reducing day by day — Habitat loss and human encroachment being the major culprits. Their range is being continually reduced, and with their highly nomadic lifestyle, increased confrontation with humans is inevitable — who will not hesitate to kill them to protect their livestock.
The African wild dog is tagged “endangered” by IUCN. However, conservationists appear to be stabilizing populations in isolated patches of land in some areas of central and southern Africa. As of today, there are about 6000 individuals left in the wild. A lot of work still needs to be done, especially concerning human confrontation, and with increasing interest from various ends, it’s safe to say we may have a positive outlook on things — for now.