Snow leopard (dreamstime)
List Words : Katherine Price | 09 August

10 of the world's most endangered animals

Katherine Price looks at the ten most endangered species in the world, and where to see them in their natural habitat – while you still can

1. Javan rhinoceros

Once the most widespread of Asian rhinos, Javan rhinos are now considered critically endangered. With only one known population in the wild, it is one of the world's rarest large mammals. There are no more than 50 living in the wild, and none living in captivity. The rhinos are often poached for their horns, although loss of habitat, especially resulting from the Vietnam War, has also contributed to their decline.

The only population of Javan rhinos can be found in Ujung Kulon National Park on the south-western tip of Java, Indonesia. The only other population, in Vietnam, was wiped out in 2011.

2. Vaquita

With less than 200 individuals left in the world, and only inhabiting one place, the vaquita is considered the most endangered marine mammal in the world. Thought to be threatened by fishing nets, which kill between 40-80 vaquitas every year, the future looks bleak for this small porpoise. Chlorinated pesticides, irrigation and inbreeding also threaten the species.

Found solely in the northern part of the Gulf of California, Mexico, they are easily spotted due to the shallow water that they inhabit; lagoons generally no deeper than 30m.

3. Mountain gorillas

Today, only around 790 mountain gorillas are thought to exist. The future is looking brighter for the primates; the gorilla population has almost doubled since 1981, when gorillas were thought to be on their way to extinction.

However, illegal poaching, pollution, habitat deforestation, fragmentation and diseases caught from humans are still threatening their populations. They are often poached for their meat, and younger gorillas can be caught in snares meant for other animals. War and civil unrest have also impacted negatively on the gorillas.

There are two mountain gorilla populations, which travellers can visit. One group can be found in the Virunga volcanic mountains of Central Africa across three national parks: Uganda's Mgahinga National Park, Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park and DR Congo's Virguna National Park (although this has been closed to tourists due to a recent violent rebellion). The other population inhabits Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. You're most likely to see the gorillas in Rwanda or Uganda; you're unlikely to return disappointed.

Take a look at Wanderlust's gorilla watching travel guide for more information.

4. Tigers

At the beginning of the 20th century, there were 100,000 tigers in the world. Today, this number is estimated to have dwindled to less than around 3,200 in the wild. Tigers need large areas of habitat, but living in some of the most densely populated places on Earth has placed them in locations that have caused significant conflict between them and humans. Habitat destruction and fragmentation has had the most significant effects on the tigers' habitats, and being poached is one of their biggest threats.

Now that India's Supreme Court has banned tourism in tiger parks, the options are much more limited. However, you can still spot tigers in Bangladesh, China, Sumatra, Siberia and Nepal. Nepal's Chitwan National Park is probably the best bet, where you can opt for jeep or elephant-back safaris, or even tracking on foot. Bardia National Park in north-western Nepal has recently reported an increase in its tiger populations, highlighting another potential tiger watching area.

5. Snow leopards

The wild snow leopard population was estimated to be between only 4,000 to 6,500 in 2003, and only 2,500 of those or less are likely to reproduce. Found in 12 countries in Central Asia, the species is threatened by herders who kill snow leopards to prevent them from preying on their livestock, a significant decrease in the leopards' wild prey and poachers are also an issue.

The leopards themselves can only be found in Central Asia: inhabiting China, Bhutan, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Mongolia.

Generally the snow leopards can be spotted in Mongolia's Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park, the Himalayan mountains of Bhutan's Jigme Dorji National Park and Phoksundo Lake between Upper and Lower Dolpo in western Nepal's Shey-Phoksundo National Park. The leopards also descend from the high valleys of Ladakh in February, in India's Hemis National Park, in search of prey.

6. Irrawaddy dolphins

The worldwide population of these dolphins is estimated to be around 6,000. However, so much of that population is concentrated in Bangladesh that populations outside of Bangladesh and India are considered critically endangered. Five of the seven sub-populations are critically endangered, including the Malampaya population in the Philippines, which numbered just 47 dolphins in 2007. The biggest threat to these dolphins are fishing nets, which accidentally capture and drown them. They are also often killed for their oil.

Around 90% of the dolphins can be found in Bangladesh, and the Bay of Bengal is your best bet to see them. They can also be seen relatively easily in the Mekong river that runs through Cambodia and Laos, and they are especially prominent in Kampi pool, just a short drive north from Kratie, Cambodia, during the dry months of March and August.

7. Sumatran orang utans

Once widespread, the orang utan has been considered critically endangered since 2000 and is one of the world's most endangered primates. Only around 7,300 of them still live in the wild, as of a 2004 survey. Logging, forest fires, fragmentation, and especially the removal of tropical forests for palm oil, all critically threaten the orang utan's survival. Hunting and illegal pet trade have also dwindled numbers.

Only found in the northern and western provinces of the island of Sumatra, Indonesia, the Sumatran orang utan's range really is incredibly small, and it is incredibly rare. The Lake Toba forests, specifically Bukit Lawang and Gunung Leuser National Park, are the best places to spot this incredible and graceful animal.

8. Leatherback sea turtles

In between 26,000 and 43,000 female sea turtles nest annually; a dramatic decline from the estimated 115,000 in 1980. Young turtles are incredibly vulnerable and sadly, very few make it to adulthood. Birds and small mammals often dig up turtle nests in order to eat the eggs; once hatched birds and crustaceans pick off the hatchlings before they can make it to the sea; and fish, squids and octopuses often prey on them if they do manage to make it into the water.

The prime nesting spots for the turtles are in Suriname, French Guiana, Grand Anse beach in St Lucia, Turtle Beach in Tobago, Guyana's Shell Beach and Gabon. The Mayumba National Park beaches in Gabon host the largest nesting population on the African continent. April is the time to visit, when around 30,000 turtles descend on the park's beaches to lay their eggs.

9. Asian elephants

Asian elephants have now been considered an endangered species since 1986, and their population has decreased by at least 50% over the last 75 years or so. Their wild population was estimated to be between 25,500 and 33,000. Fragmentation, deforestation and an increasing human population are destroying the elephants' habitat and decreasing the space available for them to live in.

The Sri Lankan, Indian and Sumatran Asian elephants can of course be found in their countries of name and other mainland Asian countries. However, the best opportunity to see Asian elephants is at The Gathering, a natural assembly of up to 300 elephants coming to the shores of the Minneriya Tank in Sri Lanka's Minneriya National Park during August to bathe and drink. It is the largest congregation of Asian elephants in the world.

10. Atlantic bluefin tuna

Bluefin tuna numbers have declined at a staggering rate over the last 40 years; records show a 72% decrease in the Eastern Atlantic and -82% in the West. Overfishing is the main cause for the destruction of this species due to their commercial value as food. They have been heavily targeted for the Japanese fish market, where they are highly sought-after for sushi and sashimi. However, farming is the most serious threat to the species, as the tuna are taken from the wild before they are old enough to reproduce.

Native to the western and eastern Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, the tuna are very hard to track, and can be found off the coasts of so many countries; from Brazil to Norway. However, they are known to return to spawn every year in the Mediterranean sea and the Gulf of Mexico.

The world's top 10 most endangered animals have been sourced from WWF (World Wildlife Fund).

Mark Carwardine's Ultimate Wildlife ExperiencesWant your own wildlife experience? Take a look at Mark Carwardine's most recent book Ultimate Wildlife Experiences – the complete guide for avid travellers in search of the world's best wildlife. You can save 20% off both hardback and paperback copies with discount code UWE0812. Find out more here.

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