8 Incredible Animals Being Hunted Into Extinction

A worried looking mountain gorilla peers through the forest in Uganda

Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond / Getty Images

While 81 million people are added to the world each year, we are losing entire species of animals and plants. At the present rates of extinction, we could be seeing an end to as many as 20% of the world's species in the next 30 years. This rate of destruction has been unprecedented since dinosaurs ended their reign 65 million years ago.

Although a primary player in this tragedy is habitat destruction, illegal wildlife trade and trophy hunting take a heavy toll as well. Among the reasons for hunting include food. Reputed health benefits and use as status symbols lead to the loss of some incredible species that, once gone, will never return. Among the many animals hunted to the edge of extinction or beyond, the following are some we'll miss most.

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Lemurs

grey monkey with white cat like ears and black rings around the eyes partially turned toward camera on a black background

RVB / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Madagascar's 101 lemur species are the most threatened mammal group on Earth, according to a 2014 study warning that 90 of the 101 known lemur species on the island nation, to which lemurs are endemic, are threatened with extinction. Twenty-two species are critically endangered. The country's political crisis has created a wave of violent unrest and environmental crime, which has led to poaching of lemurs both as a source of protein for impoverished people and money through being sold to luxury restaurants.

Living lemurs provide value to the forests they call home through the dispersal of seeds and pollen as they move through the trees. Those natural behaviors provide food and habitats for bugs, snakes, and even larger mammals like fossas, a natural predator of lemurs. The charming lemurs can also directly benefit the Malagasy people in the form of ecotourism jobs. Conservation efforts in recent years have focused on the promotion of ecotourism to provide income for the people of Madagascar, which in turn lessens reliance on bushmeat.

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Gorillas

Portrait of western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla), Bayanga, Central African Republic

David Schenfeld / Getty Images

For ages, gorillas had the protection that Mother Nature provided by way of expansive tracts of unspoiled Central African forest. Then came logging and roads and, suddenly, people were in much closer range to our primate cohabitants. Next came subsistence hunting, which escalated into an illegal commercial trade in gorilla meat. Miners, drawn to gorilla habitats to mine the many rare earth minerals found in electric vehicle batteries, cell phones, computers, and other technology, as well as gold, unapologetically kill gorillas for the substantial quantities of meat. They also capture the orphaned babies for the fictitious pet trade. Those orphans often die as a result.

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Snow Leopard

a large light colored wild cat with irregular dark spots, a Snow leopard walking across icy snow covered ground
Snow leopard.

Tom Brakefield / Getty Images

Only between 2,710 and 3,386 snow leopards remain on the planet, and the IUCN lists them as a vulnerable species. Snow leopards have it tough. Climate change at current increasing rates shifts the treeline and reduces the habitat for them by 30%. Demand for their beautiful fur for rugs and luxury decor appears to be increasing. Trophy hunters illegally kill them to bring home a taxidermy specimen for their collection. A 2015 study reported that snow leopard bones are ground into capsules for traditional medicine, even though reputable practitioners condemn the use of illegally harvested animals for that purpose.

Meanwhile, as an expanding human population is increasingly hunting their traditional prey, the big cats are turning to livestock for food, resulting in a high number of retaliatory killings of snow leopards by farmers.

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Pangolins

scaly brown animal with small triangular head
This scaly creature is a popular black market item, and it continues to be so despite increased protections.

2630ben / Shutterstock

So maybe the pangolin doesn't have the big-eyed lure of the lemur or the majesty of the snow leopard, but it sure makes up for it in prehistoric charm and a whole lot of scales. There are eight species of pangolins. They range from vulnerable to critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Their defense mechanism, rolling up into an armored ball, serves them well when their natural predators hunt them. That is, except for humans, who quickly catch the slow-moving animal and carry them off in a bag to kill and sell.

Traditionally hunted for bushmeat, increasing numbers fall prey to hunters selling them for use in unproven traditional medicines mainly in East Asian countries. However, a large number of pangolin products find their way to the United States each year. Some even show up on shelves of health food stores listed as "anteater scales." Various cultures also prize scales and other parts for use as good luck charms and ritual purposes.

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Rhinoceroses

Rhinos in Nepal stands in shallow river
Chitwan National Park is a great place to see rhinos in the wild.

danm / Getty Images

What is more expensive by weight than gold or diamonds? Unfortunately for members of the family Rhinocerotidae, the answer is their horns. Much of the demand comes from wealthy business people trying to burnish their image by displaying and gifting bowls, cups, ceremonial daggers, art, and other luxury goods carved from the horn. Another use for the horn, made from the same material as your fingernails, is traditional health tonics usually made with cast-off shavings from the carved items. The demand for those products has dropped as the price for the horn went sky-high, and East Asian Medicine practitioners joined efforts to end those uses.

Meanwhile, those who want a rhino head above the couch can pay as much as $400,000 to kill a rhino and keep its horn in legal but sometimes ethically dubious canned and trophy hunts. These permit hunters with the proper paperwork to harvest up to five rhinos per year.

Increasingly, conservation authorities take drastic measures to discourage the illegal harvest of rhino horns — including removing horns surgically while the animals are still alive. But drone surveillance, a rhino DNA database, and even poisoning rhinos' horns don't seem to be able to reverse the poaching. The Northern white rhino, West African black rhino, and Sumatran rhino are all extinct or critically endangered.

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Tigers

A tiger leaps into the water

Tom Brakefield / Getty Images

In just over a century we have lost 97% of wild tigers. While there were once nine subspecies of tigers — Bengal, Siberian, Indochinese, South Chinese, Sumatran, Malayan, Caspian, Javan, and Bali — there are now just six. The last three are extinct, one is extinct in the wild, and the rest are endangered. As few as 3,200 tigers exist in the wild now, and demand for them on the black market is extraordinary.

Almost every part of their body is sold for use in East Asian Medicine and their pelts are used for decor. The use of tiger bone has been illegal in China since 1993. Reputable East Asian Medicine practitioners condemn the use of tiger in formulations. However, one highly esteemed gift item remains tiger bone wine. Some of these wines even make their way around the world and are sold by liquor stores and online despite international laws against trading in endangered species products.

Unlike most illegal harvest of endangered animals, poaching for the black market is almost entirely reliant on the demand by wealthy consumers. That poaching is the most immediate threat to wild tigers. Resources for protecting these big cats from illegal hunting are limited and enforcing the laws has proven very challenging. Illegal trade is further encouraged by tiger farms in China and Vietnam, where tigers are bred to supply body parts and lending cover to the sale of poached tigers and tiger parts.

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Sea Turtles

large beautiful sea turtle with a carapase of overlapping sections of variagated brown markings, serated on the back of the turtle, and large flippers for swimming, swimming in a coral reef

Danita Delimont / Gallo Images / Getty Images

The hawksbill turtle has a fatal flaw; its exquisite gold and the brown shell is particularly appealing to humans. Millions of the sweet, slow turtles have been hunted over the past century to fuel the fashion for tortoiseshell jewelry, glasses, ornaments, guitar picks, and other assorted items. While the international trade of tortoiseshell has been banned since 1977, the black market nonetheless thrives.

Hawksbills are also hunted for their flesh, while other body parts are used in the manufacture of leather, handbags, perfume, and cosmetics. Some people find that they make attractive decor when stuffed. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the United States is the second-largest market for these items, and items with tortoise parts are the most common seizures by customs from tourists returning from the Caribbean.

Because of all of this, hawksbills are listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, which notes that some protected populations are stable or increasing, but the overall decline of the species, when considered within the context of three generations, has been in excess of 80%. Along with leatherback and green turtles – all sea turtles are poached – the results are severe. All seven species of marine turtles are in danger of becoming extinct. Sea turtles can take up to 30 years or more to reach breeding age. Many are killed before they have a chance to reproduce.

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Elephants

mother and child elephant standing in shallow water at a waterhole in Hwange national park, Matabeleland, North Zimbabwe

Artush / Shutterstock

In the early part of the 20th century, there were up to 3 to 5 million African elephants, according to some estimates. Now, there are around 415,000.

A landmark study found that poachers killed over 100,000 elephants across Africa between 2010 and 2012, particularly the Central African forest elephants. In 2011, poachers killed 10% of African elephants. That number fell to less than 4% in 2017 due to more vigorous poaching enforcement.

The ivory from elephant tusks is the main attraction, but their meat and skin also enter the black market. Although the CITES agreement banned the international trade of ivory in 1989, the lust for it persists. Ornamental ivory carvings and jewelry dominate the illegal trade. Poverty and governmental corruption lead to increased poaching rates.