10 National Animals That Are Rare, Unusual, Endangered or Completely Nonexistent

Unicorn with the Scottish flag and an emblem with a red lion on gold on a stone wall
Asvolas / Getty Images

If Benjamin Franklin had had his way, the national bird of the United States would have been the turkey, an animal he called "a true original Native of America," rather than the bald eagle. In his defense, there's certainly no shortage of turkeys to go around in America, which can't be said about a handful of other countries' national animals that are decidedly less common — some even extinct. Other countries proudly boast emblematic critters that are straight-out bizarre or even mythological. From the dodo to the Komodo dragon to folkloric winged horses, here is a motley menagerie of the world's most unusual national animals.

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Unicorn (Scotland)

unicorn statue in Saverne, Alsace
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Scotland's national animal, the unicorn, is a creature that's majestic and mythical. It appears on Scotland's Royal Coat of Arms as a symbol of purity, strength, and independence. How could anyone take issue with the national animal of Scotland being a unicorn? Shocking but true, in 2015, a small but vocal group of Scots wanted to do away with the unicorn, the heraldic symbol of Scotland that's served as the country's national animal since the late 1300s. However, their objection to the unicorn wasn't its mythological nature. They were hoping to replace it with another elusive beast: the Loch Ness Monster. Their argument for why the unicorn should be replaced by a lake-dwelling cryptid that's most likely a very large catfish? "How many people visit Scotland to look for unicorns? Exactly."

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Dodo (Mauritius)

Wooden Dodo bird, typical souvenir from the island of Mauritius.
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Although the dodo went extinct circa 1662, the curious-looking flightless bird remains both a symbol of Mauritian pride and a potent reminder of the plight of endangered species across the globe threatened by human activity. The story of the dodo is tragic. Dutch settlers on the island of Mauritius ate them, destroyed their habitat, and introduced predatory invasive species. However, the spirit of this hefty pigeon cousin lives on through Mauritian business names, stamps, and public statuary. Today, the dodo is a tourism mascot and the subject of a museum in Mauritius' bustling capital city of Port Louis, where visitors will find drawings and skeletons of the legendary bird.

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Okapi (Democratic Republic of Congo)

Okapi eating leaves
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It's a donkey. It’s a baby giraffe. On second thought, it's an antelope. Or maybe a zebra half-covered in mud? What in the world is that? Say hello to the okapi, one of Mother Nature's most confounding creations, and the national animal of the Democratic Republic of Congo. This animal, a close relative of the giraffe, is so rare and peculiar that it was long believed to be of mythical origin. This enigmatic ruminant with hair-covered horns, striped hindquarters, and a long tongue even served as the mascot for the now-defunct International Society of Cryptozoology. Of course, the okapi isn't a cryptid but a real species — and an endangered one at that. With a teeny-tiny range limited to the forests of northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, this skittish and solitary beast known as the "forest giraffe" has experienced steadily declining population numbers since the mid-1990s.

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Komodo Dragon (Indonesia)

Komodo Dragon Portrait close up - Komodo Island, Indonesia

Jamie Lamb / Getty Images

The Komodo dragon, Indonesia's national animal, is the largest lizard on earth, growing up to 10 feet long and weighing up to 150 pounds. They feed mostly by scavenging but may also kill live prey if no animal carcasses can be found. The Komodo dragon is perhaps the most fearsome national animal in existence given its considerable body weight, muscular tail, powerful jaws, long claws, razor-sharp serrated teeth, and bacteria-laden saliva. Although it may be terrifying, attacks on humans are relatively rare as most folks living amongst this fork-tongued monster know to keep their distance. Komodo dragons are listed as vulnerable by the IUCN, but the Indonesian government has gone to great lengths to protect them, establishing the Komodo National Park in 1980, which was later named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Baird's Tapir (Belize)

baird's tapir
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Baird’s tapir is a weird-looking beast (think the odd-toed lovechild of a pig, a horse, an anteater, and a hippo) that produces some seriously cute babies. It's both the largest indigenous land mammal in Central America and the national animal of Belize. It's also endangered, with less than 5,000 individuals estimated to be surviving in the wild. Habitat destruction, poaching, and an extremely low reproduction rate have all contributed to declining population numbers. In Belize, Baird's tapir does enjoy a certain degree of protection within the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve, a more than 6,000-acre reserve co-managed by the Belize Audubon Society that's home to a wide range of fauna, some of which, like Baird's tapir, are severely threatened.

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Markhor (Pakistan)

Markhor male at rest on the rock. Bukharan markhor (Capra falconeri heptneri), also known as the Turkomen Markhor. Wildlife animal
Armen Maitesyan / Getty Images

Pakistan's national animal, the markhor, is best known for sporting twisty, corkscrew-like horns that are some of the most unique in the animal kingdom. The name of these super-agile wild goats comes from a Persian word that translates to "snake eater." While the herbivorous markhor certainly doesn't have a taste for reptiles, traditional folklore states that the goats hunt, stomp on, and eat snakes. The animal's name may also derive from its distinctive horns, which resemble twisting snakes and are believed to have healing qualities in traditional Asian medicine. Sadly, markhor populations have been declining as trophy hunters and poachers remained unchecked for decades, killing the animals for their unique horns. However, the markhor is slowly making a comeback. The IUCN Red List recently upgraded the species from endangered to near threatened.

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Takin (Bhutan)

Takin, Bhutan's national animal
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Relatively new as national animals go, the takin was named national animal of Bhutan in 1985. A relative of the musk ox, the takin has been revered by the people of Bhutan for centuries. The origins of the takin are steeped in local mythology and date back to the 15th century when Drukpa Kunley, a Tibetan saint known as the Divine Madman of Bhutan, supposedly created the takin out of the skeletal remnants of a beef and goat meat lunch provided to him by villagers. However, the takin isn't even the most bizarre animal associated with Bhutan. The Druk, or "Thunder Dragon," is a mythological dragon that serves as another national symbol of Bhutan, even appearing on the country's flag.

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Turul (Hungary)

Budapest, Turul Statue at the Royal Palace
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Hungary is another country with a mythical national animal, the legendary Turul. The Turul is a mythological bird of prey that frequently appears in Hungarian stories, often in the form of a giant falcon. According to Hungarian legends, the Turul dropped a sword in Budapest in 896 AD, leading the original Hungarian people to their new home. Today, the bird appears on everything from the Hungarian military's coat of arms to the country's stamps. But Hungary isn't the only European country with a strong affection for mythological birds. In Portugal, the mythical Rooster of Barcelos is the country's top emblematic chicken, and its colorful likeness is displayed front and center at touristy gift shops nationwide.

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Chollima (North Korea)

Chollima statue in North Korea

Nicor / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Aside from the wide, empty streets and propaganda posters, one of the first things that the limited number of Western visitors permitted to step foot in Pyongyang, capital of the self-isolated hermit kingdom of North Korea, probably notice is the massive statue of a winged horse. Said winged horse in none other than Chollima, a mythical creature of Chinese origin — a kind of hard-line communist take on Pegasus — that came to symbolize plans for swift postwar economic development introduced by Kim Il-Sung in the late 1950s. "Let us dash forward in the spirit of Chollima" was the reconstruction campaign's slogan. Decades later, Chollima remains an important — and rather ubiquitous — icon of North Korea. Perched atop Mansu Hill, the 150-foot-tall Chollima Statue is among the most imposing monuments in a city filled with imposing monuments.

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Hedgehog, Rabbit, and Wood Mouse (Monaco)

A hedgehog, a rabbit and a wood mouse

Claus Rebler / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0 and Mathias Appel / Flickr / CC0 1.0 and jans canon / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Monaco, the tiny, billionaire-filled European principality best known for a beloved princess named Grace, couldn't decide on one national animal, so it picked three: the hedgehog, the rabbit, and the wood mouse. Carved into the Mediterranean coastline on the French Riviera, this sun-drenched microstate famed for its glitzy gambling establishments and Grand Prix is home to only ten mammal species. Among these mammals are the wood mouse and the hedgehog, but strangely not the rabbit. Still, the national animals of other European microstates, such as the Pyrenean chamois of Andorra or the Pharaoh hound of Malta, are no match for the cuteness of this adorable Monégasque trio.