A plant or animal species is endangered if it is at risk of disappearing from the earth. When a species disappears, it is extinct. Extinction is forever. No extinct animal can ever come back.
Sometimes, a species is not currently at risk of becoming extinct, but people think it will be soon. These species are called "threatened."
Long before recorded history, humans were killing off species of animals. Humans caused the extinction of huge birds called moas in Malaysia and of giant lemurs in Madagascar. We may also have caused the extinction of many large mammals like dire wolves, giant sloths, saber-toothed cats, and mastodons.
Since 1600, more than 700 species of plants and animals have gone extinct. This is only counting the plants and animals that we know of. The majority of plants and animal species in the world have never even been documented. There is no way of knowing how many of these undiscovered treasures have been lost.
How Many Animal Species Are Endangered?
There are about 400 animals in the United States who are listed as endangered, and about 130 that are threatened. Worldwide, there are about 500 animals listed as endangered and 39 listed as threatened.
Does that mean that most of the endangered animals are in the United States? No! But it does mean that we're pretty good at getting the ones who are endangered on the endangered species list. Most species that are actually endangered aren't on the list. Scientists estimate that 100 species go extinct every day! That's about one species every 15 minutes.
Who Is on the Endangered Species List?
Just a few of the hundreds of animals are: African elephants, Asian elephants, black-footed ferrets, bald eagles, West Indian manatees, Canadian lynxes, American alligators, Western gorillas, grizzly bears, caribou, Florida cougars, jaguars, short-tailed chinchillas, tigers, black rhinos, California condors, Utah prairie dogs, whooping cranes, Northern spotted owls, blue whales, finback whales, humpback whales, sperm whales, sei whales, rights whales, green sea turtles, leatherback sea turtles, hawksbill sea turtles, ridley sea turtles, Kemp's ridley sea turtles, Atlantic salmon, Chinook salmon, sockeye salmon, white sturgeon, and red wolves.
Who Decides if a Species Is Endangered?
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decides which species in the United States are threatened and which are endangered through its Listing Program. The review process starts when someone—anyone!—sends a petition to the Service. The petition asks the Service to see if there is evidence that the species is on the edge of extinction. A species will be classified as endangered if there is enough evidence. The decision is based on science, not politics.
How Are Endangered Species Protected?
According to the Endangered Species Act, when a species is endangered, it is illegal to kill, harm, or take the species out of its habitat. Both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries are responsible for protecting endangered species.
In addition, these organizations have created recovery plans for many of the species to save them from extinction. But this job is difficult. Many species have no recovery plans, and they need help! To find out how you can help, read How You Can Help (below).
Why Are Animals Endangered?
If animals have been going extinct ever since there were animals, what's all the worry about? The worry is that the rate of extinction we humans are causing is among the worst the earth has ever witnessed. Sure, the earth recovered from the mass extinctions that have occurred before—but only after millions of years.
There are many ways that humans are pushing animals towards extinction, but the three biggest ways are:
1. Habitat Destruction
Humans take up a lot of room. Roads, parking lots, fields for grazing cattle, and yards all take up lots of space that used to be home for animals.
Think it's hard to cross the street sometimes? Imagine trying to cross if you were as small as a mouse or as slow as a turtle. Roads also divide the wilderness into sections and make it hard for animals to move around. If animals can't move around, they can run out of food faster, have a harder time finding mates, and die away.
People used to think that the swampy land along many coasts and rivers was a waste. After all, people couldn't build houses on it, so what good was it? We have learned that these "wetlands" are sanctuaries for hundreds of species of insects, mollusks, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. In fact, about half of the animals listed as either threatened or endangered depend on wetlands. Destroying wetlands pushes many animals towards extinction.
Most of the animal species in the world live in the rain forests. Guess which part of the world is disappearing the quickest? Yep, the rain forests. By destroying the thin bands of rain forests around the equator, we are endangering and exterminating countless numbers of plant and animal species.
SUVs, trucks and cars cause pollution. Lots. For every 10,000 or so miles a vehicle is driven, it puts its weight in exhaust into the air. Pesticides, trash, oil spills, vehicle exhaust, and factory waste kill millions of animals. Pollution oozes into the earth, seeps into the rivers, and collects in the oceans, killing countless animals everywhere it goes. Pollution can kill animals outright—like the immense loss of fish when the Exxon Valdez sunk.
Pollution also builds up in the ecosystem and weakens it. When you are sick, you can be badly hurt by things that were no big deal when you were healthy. The same is true for the environment and animal species. Pollution build-up makes animals die from things that wouldn't have killed them if they lived in a healthy world.
2. Introduction of Foreign Species
Would you find it hard to cope if thousands of starlings suddenly moved into your house? Would you move? Bluebirds [link] did. So did great crested flycatchers, red bellied woodpeckers, Northern flickers, tree swallows, and purple martins. All of these birds lost homes when starlings were introduced by Eugene Scheiffer, who released 80 starlings from Europe in New York City's Central Park on March 6, 1890.
The pigs, sheep, horses, goats, cows, cats, dogs, rabbits, rats, mice, wasps, trout, goldfish, and other species that humans have introduced to Australia have endangered many of the native animals, and have even pushed some into extinction. Introduced species have endangered animals all over the world, not just Australia.
The oceans are tired. We are taking as much life from them as they can give. If we try to take any more, we will start killing them. Many of the fish we take from the ocean cannot reproduce fast enough to recover. Their numbers are shrinking and they are disappearing.
What Will Happen to Endangered Animals?
Every species of endangered animal is in danger of becoming extinct. In fact, since a species is not declared extinct until years have gone by since it was last spotted, some endangered species may already be gone forever.
Other species that have only a few members left may never be able to recover. The environment needs diversity to survive, and a species needs "genetic diversity" to survive. If there are too few members of a species, cousins start having babies with cousins. Not good.
Plants and animals rely on each other. When one species goes extinct, others who depended on it may die, too. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service has estimated that losing one plant species can cause up to 30 plants and animal species to disappear, too.
All is not lost, at least for some species. Humpback whales have grown in numbers since it was made illegal to hunt them. Grey wolves appear to be recovering. In fact, about 64% of the mammals and 68% of the birds that were endangered in 1973 were listed as "improving and stable" by 1994. Most scientists, however, believe the worst is yet to come, and that there is a lot we must do.
What Will Happen to Us?
The number of animals that humans have made extinct in the past 100 years is small compared to the number of species that are predicted to be lost in the coming years. As members of the ecosystem die out, the ecosystem is weakened. The number of humans in the world is increasing at an incredible rate, with no sign of slowing down. More people mean more resources are taken away from the weakened environment.
There are many ways to explain how extinction and the loss of biodiversity affects the environment. A popular way is to think of the environment as a huge blanket (or tapestry). Each species lost is like a thread being pulled out of the blanket. The more threads that are lost, the greater the chance that the whole blanket will rip in half.
We are part of the environment. The things we do affect the environment, and the things that happen to it affect us. By destroying the environment, we are destroying ourselves.
As species go extinct, we loose opportunities. Already about 40% of our medicine is made from things found in nature, and we have only explored about 5% of the known plant species for medicines.
Even the plants we do know about can surprise us. The Pacific yew was cut down and burned as trash for years. Then a chemical in its bark (called taxol) was discovered to be a very promising medicine for ovarian and breast cancer.
There is no way of knowing if any of the 100 species of plants that go extinct every day hid similar miracles.
How Can You Help?
Since the major reasons for extinction are caused by humans, it's up to us to save these plants and animals! Here are some ways that you, your family, and your community can help.
Protect Their Habitats:
National parks, sanctuaries, nature reserves and wilderness areas are vital for the survival of many endangered species. But, these areas are not enough! Protect the natural areas around your house and in your community.
Many parks have conservation teams that clean and protect these precious treasures. Talk to park rangers to find out what you can do.
When you visit wild places, do not take out any plants or animals. Even taking out dead trees and plants without permission—like for firewood—can weaken the environment and help push endangered species over the edge.
A big cause of extinction is the damage we do to the environment. Global warming, contamination, and trash all make it harder for animals to live and grow. So, help keep your neighborhood and the wild areas near you clean! Trash and pollution can find their ways into many places and kill many animals. Plastic six-pack holders can strangle or bind animals' feet. Animals can bleed to death from cuts they get from glass and metal. When animals eat trash that looks like food to them, they can choke or their stomachs may become blocked.
Recycle, reduce, reuse! Encourage your family to use public transportation. Walk or ride a bike instead of having your parents drive you around. Turn off lights, radios, and TVs when you're not around. Encourage your family to use cloth bags for groceries, instead of using and throwing out plastic ones.
It may be hard to believe, but the world is running out of clean, fresh water. We need to conserve fresh water for ourselves, and for the rest of the thirsty animals.
Help Native Species
Do you live in the country? Grow native plants, like native flowers and native trees. Live in a city? Put out a birdfeeder. Maybe a birdbath, too. Remember to keep food out for birds all winter long—if not, they could starve!
You can't help if you don't know what to do. Check out Resources for links to more information.
Join an Organization
There are many organizations that help endangered animals. A few are the Endangered Species Coalition, the Nature Conservancy, and the Rainforest Action Network.
Make Your Voice Heard
Talk to your friends and family about the problem. Contact your representatives and senators and let them know how you feel. If we don't talk to them, who will?
Endangered Species Program - The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service's site about endangered species.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Site on Endangered Animals for Kids
Animal Info: Information on Endangered Mammals
EnchantedLearning.com Endangered Animal Printouts - Pages that can be printed out and colored
Information on Wetlands
Information on Rain Forests