We’ve all heard that tigers, elephants, chimpanzees, bats, and many other mammals are at risk of dying out, but there are many other species that you’ve likely never even heard of let alone seen, and probably never will because they are so rare to begin with – and threatened with habitat destruction.
Asia’s rapid growth fueled by our increasingly insatiable consumption-based lifestyles is widely seen as economic progress, but unfettered urbanization and economic growth come with serious costs to the environment: air pollution, deforestation, and the decline of wildlife are just a few.
We have seen the how China’s population is coming to grips with its choking smog; children in Beijing have to wear masks, or better still, stay indoors. With global population levels expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, sustainable growth is paramount to the well-being of the people, and unless drastic reforms are implemented, the situation will only get worse; embracing renewable energy and reducing waste generation – both industrial and domestic – will be a start. After all, what’s the benefit of economic growth to a country if its people are unhealthy?
The loss of wildlife is an issue of least concern, probably because the role of wildlife in maintaining the ecosystem is seriously underestimated; our well-being is inextricably tied to biodiversity. Scientists have long thought that the tropics have the highest biodiversity on our planet. They are still discovering new species in areas like Borneo, which are home to hundreds of unique species. In fact, a recent study published in PLOS provides evidence that new species are emerging at a high rate in the tropics compared with higher latitudes. But vast swathes of lush forests thriving with a myriad of creatures, from bugs and birds, to amphibians and mammals, are chopped down in Sumatra and Borneo alone, primarily for palm oil plantations and pulpwood. With fast-disappearing habitats, rare mammals might be gone soon. Just imagine: what would the world be like without mammals?
Here are some amazingly rare and unusual-looking mammals from Asia that may silently disappear from the planet without you realizing.
This bizarre scaly creature that resembles a mini armored dinosaur is actually an anteater found in the forests of northern India, Nepal, Myanmar, Laos, and its distribution extends all the way till southeast China. Because they eat ants, termites and other insects, they serve as efficient pest controllers; they can devour up to 70 million insects a year! Little is known about these mysterious creatures. Pangolins dig burrows where they sleep during the day and at night they feed on ants by capturing them with their extremely long sticky tongues that are 40 cm in length! If they sense danger, they can curl up into a ball to protect themselves.
Chinese Pangolins are endangered in the IUCN Red List and commercial trade is restricted according to CITES Appendix II. Their main threats include habitat destruction and intense hunting in China for use in traditional medicine and for export of their skin, scales, and meat. Vietnamese hunters have claimed that pangolins fetch over US$ 95 per kilogram. So despite the trade restrictions, illegal exports continue to be seized by local authorities.
Saola – The Asian Unicorn
Saola are an elusive species. In fact, they are known as “the rarest mammals on the planet” – spotting one is akin to catching a glimpse of a unicorn. But unlike unicorns, saola have two parallel horns, which can reach up to 20 inches long. Although they look like antelopes, they are related to wild cattle. Scientists were excited to re-discover them last year – 15 years since their last sighting – from camera traps set by the WWF. The saola are only found in the evergreen forests in the Annamite Mountains of central Vietnam and Laos.
Although no formal surveys have been conducted, some estimates suggest fewer than 250 adults remain in its narrow range. Interviews with villagers and hunters revealed what most conservationists fear: they are becoming increasingly scarce over the past years. Consequently, saola are listed as critically endangered in the IUCN Red List.
They are ruthlessly hunted and often caught in snares intended for other smaller mammals – pigs and muntjacs for example. It was only in 2011 when forest guards removed more than 30,000 snares and 600 illegal hunters’ settlements from their habitat. As if that wasn’t enough, pressures such as habitat destruction and fragmentation due to increasing demand for agriculture and infrastructure have contributed their decline. Fragmented populations may result in reduced genetic diversity. Improving access to the forests through the construction of roads will only exacerbate hunting. With such few numbers, the WWF estimates saola may go extinct in a few years.
Watch this video from the WWF to learn more about saola and conservation efforts.
Tarisers, named after their unusually long tarsals, – anklebones that enable them to leap 40 times their own body length – are the only fully carnivorous primates on Earth consisting of several species. They are so tiny, they can fit into your hands. One of their striking features is their enormous eyes, each of which weigh more than their brain, and are 150 times bigger than the eyes of humans after taking into account their body size! They possess another unique adaptation: the incredible ability to rotate their heads almost 360° – 180° in each direction – allowing them to watch out for prey and predators while clinging to a tree.
According to fossil records tarsiers were once found throughout Asia, Europe, and even North America and Africa; now they are restricted to the Southeast Asian islands of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. They occupy a wide range of habitats including heavily logged areas as well as agricultural plantations although they still require at least some dense shrubs for sleeping. Little data exist on the population numbers of these elusive primates. Tarsier from Siau Island in Indonesia are among IUCN’s “World’s 25 Most Endangered Primates”.
Captive infant mortality is high: only half of them survive in the first two years of captivity. Major threats to their populations are habitat destruction, fragmentation, hunting, persecution, and tourism. Locals hunt them for consuming as a snack – shockingly, 5 to 10 can be eaten at a time. Farmers persecute them deeming that they are destroying their crops when in fact they are helping them by controlling pests – the real culprits. In the Philippines, thousands of tourists flock to the forests to photograph the shy, nocturnal animals, sometimes coming too close to them or even touching them, which is immensely stressful for them as shown in this BBC video.
Saigas are critically endangered species characterized with a large head and its peculiar nose that is flexible and extends all the way down to its mouth. This specialized nose filters the dust from the air in the summers and warms the freezing air in the bitterly cold winters. They are less than one meter tall and resemble small sheep. Usually, they travel in herds of 30 to 40, but when they migrate to escape the freezing winter, thousands of them travel together.
The saiga once inhabited the steppes and semi-desert areas of Central Asia, western China, and Mongolia. Today, they are confined to Central Asia, primarily in Kazakhstan, and small populations in Russia and Mongolia. Their population has plummeted drastically, from over a million in the 1990s, to only around 50,000 today.
The breakup of the USSR triggered a huge spike in saiga hunting for their meat, particularly the males for their horns, which are ground up for use in traditional Chinese medicine. The result has been catastrophic: sex ratios are severely skewed leading to low birth rates. In addition, thousands of saiga perished due to an outbreak of a lung disease in 2010.
Some saiga areas are protected but because of their long migration routes they occupy a large areas not under protection. Conservationists have suggested a total ban on their meat and horn trade but their implementation and enforcement remains uncertain. The good news is that the Kazakhstan government reported last year that their population has more than doubled to 137,000 within the past five years, thanks to an international memorandum of understanding with neighboring saiga countries to protect their territory.
Javan Rhino (Lesser one-horned rhino)
Known as one of the “rarest large mammals in the world,” Javan rhinos were once spread from eastern India to all over Southeast Asia. Currently, fewer than 50 adults remain, all of which are located in Ujung Kulon National Park in the westernmost tip of Java, Indonesia. Such a small population leads to lower genetic diversity making them susceptible to diseases and natural disasters. In the last decade, only twelve calves were born.
Recently, in October 2011, the Javan rhino was declared extinct in Vietnam – the last individual, a female, was shot by a poacher, according to conservationists. Like the saiga, the horn of the Javan rhino is highly prized in traditional Chinese medicine, and this demand has decimated their populations. However, poaching is now strictly regulated. And there is a glimmer of hope: camera traps set up by the WWF revealed two calves in 2010.
Primate Info Net: Tarsier