In 2012, nearly $1 billion was donated in the name of environmental preservation to just three charities: The Conservation Fund, the World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy. Where does this money go?
Most, according to National Geographic, goes toward protecting a handful of our favorite animals -- apes, elephants, big cats, black rhinos and giant pandas hold the top five spots. Public opinion of these creatures is highly positive, but also highly biased.
Some argue, for example, that giant pandas are a colossal waste of our time. No matter how fuzzy, if they don't want to be saved -- and it doesn't seem like they do -- well, "Darwinism isn't for crybabies," writes Timothy Lavin. (On the other hand, maybe we should feel a little guilty for destroying the diverse habitat that sustains numerous other plant and animal species, too.)
Although there are mathematical models that could be used to determine return on investment in any particular species, at the end of the day "what we decide to save really is very arbitrary -- it's much more often done for emotional or psychological or national reasons," The Nature Conservatory's M. Sanjayan told National Geographic.
Here's a quick snapshot of some less popular endangered species that may not be around much longer if we don't start paying attention.
Golden Poison Dart Frog
Meet one of the most poisonous creatures on earth. Native to Colombia, just one little golden dart frog has enough venom in its one-inch body to kill ten fully grown men. No one's entirely sure how that potency is created, since they eat way more flies and termites than arsenic or cyanide. But the poison does stem from the frogs' natural diet, somehow -- those bred in captivity grow up non-toxic.
Researchers trying to harness the dart frog's venom have so far been able to produce a synthetic version, which has shown signs of leading to a new painkiller. Unfortunately, the golden poison dart frog's population has been dwindling -- although they're plentiful within the small region they call home -- and is threatened further by deforestation.
The albatross is stuff of maritime legend and classic poetry, and if you could meet one you'd see why -- these birds are stunningly elegant. And almost prehistorically massive. Your average short-tailed albatross is about three feet long with a wingspan of over seven feet, which it needs to sail over the Pacific toward its breeding grounds.
Unfortunately, these breeding grounds are where most short-tailed albatross met their demise in the mid-1900s when Japanese hunters started harvesting the birds for their feathers, which women across Europe had deemed exceedingly fashionable. The hunters didn't realize the entire global population of the short-tailed albatross descended on the few islands they were prowling, though, and killed off most of the species. Luckily the birds have rebounded some, but recent run-ins with fishing lines are a threat to that progress. The Tristan Albatross and Amsterdam Albatross are also critically endangered.
The largest predator in South America -- a massive croc that used to number in the millions along the Orinoco river in Colombia and Venezuela -- is still in jeopardy due to the whims of fashionable ladies and gents in the middle of the last century. Demand for crocodile skin was so high in the 1930s and 40s that the animals were nearly wiped out. Today there are only about 1,500 left.
There does seem to be hope for the Orinoco crocodile, though, thanks to El Frío ranch in Venezuela. Ranchers started breeding the animals -- which can grow up to 24 feet according to one Spanish priest and researcher -- in the 1980s, and now around 400 live in El Frío's waters. If everyone accepted that crocodile skin is so totally over and gave these guys half a chance, they may be able to regain their footing.
Mussels of North America
There are around 300 species of mussels inhabiting the North American continent, and about 70 percent of them are extinct or endangered, according to one estimate from the US Geological Survey. (For comparison, about 17 percent of mammals and 16 percent of birds in North America are in jeopardy.) They come with awesome names -- sheepnose, spectaclecase, Higgins' eye, fat pocketbook, etc. -- but thanks to over-harvesting, introduction of invasive species, and habitat degradation caused by people dumping pollution into rivers, they're dying out, taking with them the free water filtration services they've been providing for ages.
Their death is a testament to the long-term changes humans have made to water systems, since mussels are known to be hardy creatures capable of withstanding harsh environmental conditions, so long as it's temporary.
A number of shark species are in trouble due to overfishing and habitat destruction -- among them, the Indo-Pacific Pondicherry shark, the Borneo shark and the southwest Atlantic Daggernose shark -- but perhaps none so much as India's Ganges shark.
Until the mid-1990s, everything we knew about the Ganges shark came from three specimens hauled out of the water in the late 19th century, and our knowledge could still be described as sketchy. The shark lives, as one might expect, in the Ganges-Hooghly River system of India. Due to pollution and active hunting, however, it's in critical danger of being wiped from this river's ecosystem.
At one time, the Addax -- a stockier antelope with corkscrew horns -- roamed widely throughout northern Africa, but in the last three generations has declined 80 percent in population. There are now fewer than 300 of these guys around.
Several factors have contributed to the addax's decline, foremost among them being hunting by humans who think shooting at a slow-moving target from a Jeep sounds like fair hunting. Or jerk tourists who just like to chase the poor, pudgy things until they keel over from exhaustion.
St. Lucia Racer Snake
Snakes are probably only second to spiders on mankind's list of most abhorred creepy-crawlies. Few may be glad to hear of one rising from extinction, but that's where we find the St. Lucia racer snake, which was rediscovered in 1973 after being declared lost to the world in 1936. The snake is one of -- if not the -- rarest snake on earth, with only 18 specimens counted in 2011 on one tiny mongoose-free island.
The lack of mongoose is important to note, since it's that fierce, reptile-eating animal who's to blame for the racer snake's brush with extinction -- or rather, the humans who shipped them in from India to control St. Lucia's venomous snake population. The mongooses, of course, did not discriminate between those and the small, harmless racer snakes, wanting only an easy meal. Which they got.
Pygmy Three-Toed Sloth
This animal is basically a three-toed sloth in a smaller package, and very rare. It's so slow, algae is often found growing on its fur. Its arms and widely spaced thighs make moving along the ground a supremely awkward affair -- picture a furry baby doing an army crawl with super-long arms. But the sloth is perfectly suited to hanging upside down, and its fur actually grows the opposite direction of other mammals' so water can flow off its body more easily.
Unfortunately for the pygmy three-toed sloth, which lives solely within the mangroves of Panama, loss of habitat caused by locals, along with occasional hunting, has greatly reduced their numbers enough to earn a spot on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's "critically endangered" list. One 2011 survey found just 79 of the animals remaining.
There is nothing heartwarming about the condor. Ugly as sin, this thing subsists on the rotting flesh of deceased animals and communicates by grunting and hissing at other condors. The birds soar lazily on wind currents instead of effortfully flapping their nine-foot wingspans, and prefer stealing other scavengers' finds instead of using their own sense of smell to locate a carcass, which they sometimes eat with such reckless abandon that they can't pick themselves up to fly away for the next several hours.
But the species that was raised from extinction in the 1980s still only numbers below 300 individuals. Thousands of years ago, condors roamed all of North America, but that population started dwindling in the last century because of human-induced habitat loss, shooting and poisoning by lead bullets embedded in their food.
Although conservation programs remain in place today, the animal still holds a spot on the ICUN's list of "vulnerable" species.
What's this? Some kind of deer-horse-zebra-donkey hybrid? Nope. Meet the okapi, whose closest living relative is the giraffe. Really.
Actually, if only more people knew about this crazy beast we could probably save it, because the okapi is bizarrely awesome. This is a large and "secretive" mammal that creeps around the forests of the Congo in herds, trying not to be seen. And it's been successful -- researchers didn't even know it existed until the turn of the last century, and it's not like it's a rainforest gnat or a deep-sea microbe. But the okapi are understandably people-shy. People have been hunting these guys for their meat and skin and forcing them out of their habitats for decades, causing a 50 percent drop in population from 1995 to the present.
Lord Howe Island Stick-Insect
Alternatively known as the Land Lobster and Lord Howe Island Phasmid, this is one giant-ass bug. You won't be surprised to know it hails from Australia -- or rather a gorgeous island off the southeast coast of that continent -- because of course the harmless stick insects you found fascinating as a kid are monstrously terrifying in Australia. Thought to be extinct in 1920 after humans went and introduced rats to Lord Howe, they were rediscovered in 2001 on a rocky outcrop 14 miles from the main island.
Perhaps nothing can kill off the Lord Howe Island stick-insect. But judging from our past history in the subject, humans seem to have a pretty good shot.
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