As of the beginning of 2018, the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists 5583 species of animals, plants and fungi as Critically Endangered, the last category before extinction in the wild. Of these, 2851 are of the kingdom Animalia. Surely we are in the midst of an extinction event, one on which humans have, in even most generous readings of history, contributed greatly to. The purpose of this series ‘Beauty on the Brink’ is to bring attention to some of the many bizarre and beautiful creatures that are dangerously close to disappearing from our world, and to highlight how human actions are impacting these species, both for ill and for good. For some of these species, there is still hope.
Originally, all the drawings were done in ink with a brush pen, however, some have been rendered digitally to add shading or colour. The first few drawings were produced as part of “Inktober,” an artist challenge through the month of October where you try to produce an ink drawing every day of the month. Though I did not complete the challenge, I am slowly continuing to produce drawings between homework and exams. I post all of them to my facebook profile and my Tumblr.
Saiga Antelope – Saiga tatarica
The unique proboscis-like nose of the saiga gives it a strange and distinct appearance. A native to the arid steppes of central Asia, this once widespread and prolific bovid has seen a rapid decline in population (more than 80%) over the past decade. Demand for its horns has led to intense hunting, especially of male individuals, leading to a reproductive collapse. This, along with habitat loss, has caused the global saiga population to drop to approximately 18,000 individuals, and it continues to decline.
Chinese giant salamander – Andrias davidianus
This primitive salamander is one of only three species in the family Cryptobranchidae, and is the largest amphibian in the world, reaching a maximum length of 1.8 metres. They live in large forested freshwater streams, and lay their strings of 500 eggs in underwater burrows which are externally fertilized and guarded by the male until they hatch. These creatures were once fairly common, but commercial exploitation for human consumption, as well as habitat loss and degradation, has caused their population to plummet over the past few decades. Their current population is unknown, as they are now incredibly rare.
Angelshark – Squatina squatina
Also known as the monkfish, this ambush predator lives on the sandy seafloor, hunting its prey by partially burrowing itself in the sand for camouflage. Once common throughout the Northeast Atlantic, Mediterranean and Black Seas from depths of 5 to 150 metres, it is now believed to be locally extinct in much of its range. This has been caused almost entirely by a commercial fishing practice called bottom trawling in which a large net is dragged across the seabed. Though intended to catch species such as cod and rockfish, angelsharks and other bottom-dwelling creatures often end up as bycatch. In fact, 3 species in the Squatina genus, including Squatina squatina are listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, the others being Squatina oculata (the smoothback angelshark) and Squatina aculeata (the sawback angelshark), while 5 more are listed as endangered. All these are threatened, either mainly or in part, by trawl fishing.
Blue-billed Curassow – Crax alberti
Unique among curassows for its blue cere (flesh area around the beak) and wattles, and striking with its crest of curled feathers, this mysterious game-bird from Northern Columbia is considered to be one of the rarest and most endangered birds in the world. It is threatened by habitat loss and extreme habitat degradation due to industry and coffee, as well as hunting.
Fijian Monkey-faced bat – Mirimiri acrodonta
This incredibly rare bat has only been found in the cloud forests on Des Voeux Peak on the island of Taveuni, Fiji at elevations greater than 900m above sea level. Its population is likely under 1000 mature individuals, in a range of under 100m². Originally classified within the monkey-faced bat genus, as Pteralopex acrodonta, it was given its own unique genus (Mirimiri) in 2005. Very little is known about this species, including exactly what threats it faces beyond habitat loss. Many species endemic to islands are unique, having evolved under very specific conditions and pressures. As a result, islands are an important source of global biodiversity, but many of these species have limited ranges and populations, making them especially vulnerable to newly introduced threats.
Vaquita Porpoise – Phocoena sinus
The Vaquita is the smallest cetacean (whale) in the world, and the most endangered. According to the IUCN database, only an estimated 18 mature individuals remain in the wild. Native to the northernmost part of the Gulf of California, Mexico, the Vaquita, whose name mean “little cow” in Spanish, has seen a catastrophic population decline over the past two decades, with a 1997 survey estimating the population to be 567 individuals. The most serious threat to their survival is the use of gillnets, or fixed fishing nets, in which they become accidentally entangled, preventing them from surfacing for air. They drown within minutes.
In 2015 the Mexican government banned the use of gillnets in the range of the Vaquita for 2 years, and this ban was made permanent earlier this year. However, illegal fishing using these nets still occurs, and the Vaquita population continues to decline. In 2017, an attempt was made to capture some Vaquita so they could be bred in captivity. However, the project was abandoned after the second captured specimen, an adult female, died in captivity.
Yangtze giant softshell turtle – Rafetus swinhoei
Also known as Swinhoe’s softshell turtle, this pig-nosed giant is the largest freshwater turtle in the world, and only three remain. Their range once stretched over south-eastern China and Vietnam, however, they have been driven to effective extinction by overhunting and pollution. Only one known wild individual exists in a lake in Vietnam. The only hope for this species lies in a mated pair in Suzhou Zoo, China. Unfortunately, both individuals are estimated to be more than 100 years old, and though they have mated several times, have failed to produce any fertile eggs. In 2015, the female turtle was artificially inseminated after it was discovered that the male’s penis was badly damaged. This first attempt failed, but the Turtle Survival Alliance, the team working to save these species, is currently researching softshell turtle reproduction in other species to increase the chances of successful future inseminations.
Kakapo – Strigops habroptila
The Kakapo, also known as the Owl Parrot, of New Zealand, is the heaviest parrot in the world. They are both flightless and nocturnal, with a herbivorous diet consisting of fruit, roots, leaves, and seeds. Because of their terrestrial nature and low reproductive rate (they only breed every 2-5 years), they are especially vulnerable to new, invasive predators introduced by humans. Their range once spanned most of the North, South and Stewart Islands, but this has been heavily impacted by human settlement. By the late 20th century, the total population was so small and fragmented that many of the remaining birds were taken to the remote Codfish Island, Anchor Island, and Little Barrier Island in the 1990s. In 1999, the remaining population consisted of 26 females and 36 males, of which only 50 were of breeding age. However, thanks to concerted breeding and conservation efforts and strict protections, the Kakapo is making a comeback! The total population, estimated at 108 individuals, is on the increase.
West Indian Ocean Coelacanth – Latimeria chalumnae
One of only two extant species of the ancient order of lobed-finned fish, Ceolacanthiforme, once thought to have gone extinct in the Late Cretaceous. This species was first described in 1939 near the Grand Comoro and Anjouan Islands off the coast of South Africa. This modern Coelacanth is a deep ocean nocturnal predator that preys on squid and other fish species. It is believed to spend the day sheltering in caves. Latimeria chalumnae is incredibly rare, hence its recent discovery. Though its actual population is unknown, its extreme scarcity has led it to be listed as Critically Endangered.
Giant Pangasius or Paroon Shark – Pangasius sanitwongsei
The giant pangasius is a massive freshwater catfish from South-East Asia that can reach lengths of nearly 3 metres. It inhabits large rivers surrounded by rainforests, and is a migratory species, moving from shallower waters in the wet season to deep pools in the dry season. Development on the rivers in which it lives, especially dams, which change the natural cycles of flooding and drought, have likely impacted this migratory behaviour. Giant pangasius are extensively harvested throughout its range as a food source. Though harvesting for consumption is the main factor driving this species to extinction, the giant pangasius is also known in the pet trade as the paroon shark, and is sought after by some aquarium keepers for its long upright dorsal fin. As there are no known breeders of this species, all individuals on the market, usually juveniles, are assumed to be wild caught. The harvesting of this species has led an estimated 99% population decline over 3 generations.