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In an effort to raise awareness of the ongoing struggle of the nation's imperiled species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has declared May 20, 2011 "Endangered Species Day." The goal, the FWS explains, is to recognize the ongoing efforts of conservationists and to celebrate the successes of the Endangered Species Act.
Even as some species climb back from the brink of extinction, however, others are closer than ever. This Endangered Species Day, lets take a look at the status of a few of the most threatened animals around the world.READ MORE: Animal Planet's Guide to Endangered Species
Photo credit: Sebastian Bergmann/Creative Commons
It's hard to imagine a more charismatic animal than the giant panda. Unfortunately, the docile and slow moving bears face an increasingly perilous situation: Their naturally limited niche in Asia's bamboo forests is becoming ever-smaller due to habitat loss and climate change. Scientists believe there are as many as 1,600 pandas alive in the wild, but their infamously low breeding rate—both in the wild and in captivity—means that the stressed species could be incapable of sustaining this population on its own.
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Populations of the largest of the Asian cats are at an all-time low. Conservationists estimate that, thanks to habitat loss, fragmentation, and poaching, there are fewer than 3,200 tigers left in the wild. This represents a 96.8% drop in the last 20 years. Though 2010 was officially the "Year of the Tiger,"—and all 13 countries with natural populations committed to doubling the number of tigers within their borders—continued pressure on the species means the outlook is not good for the King of Asia's jungles.
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Until now, polar bears have ruled as "Lords of the Arctic," but pollution and a rapidly warming climate have created a series of threats—and invited new competition—that threatens to not only remove polar bears from the top of the food chain, but from the planet all together. Researchers estimate a total global population of 20,000 to 25,000 individuals, but a 2009 survey found that of the 12 subpopulations with enough data to create a forecast, eight were in decline.
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The black rhinoceros—whose horn is worth more than gold—faces continued threats from poachers. Though conservation and law enforcement officers have managed to break some rings of poachers, the foreign-backed organizations use advanced technology—including helicopters and night-vision equipment—to evade these efforts. Recently, some black rhinoceros populations have rebounded slightly but the species will remain in danger until demand for its horn has been eliminated.
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The hawksbill turtle's long life, slow growth, and low reproduction rates make it poorly suited to contend with new challenges like the encroachment of competing species and accidental and intentional killings by humans. The increasing degradation of coral reefs worldwide and incidental capture by fishermen further threaten the critically endangered species.
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Mountain gorillas in Africa are threatened by poaching, habitat loss, civil unrest, disease, and growing bushmeat and charcoal trades. The list of challenges seems insurmountable yet, through dedicated and tireless conservation efforts, progress has been made. Though local populations still number in the low hundreds, recent surveys have found dramatic increase—some by as much as 25 percent—in less than 10 years.
On this Endangered Species day, plants and animals around the world still hover on the brink of extinction. Still, strings of successes—even among the planet's most critically endangered populations—shows that there is still hope for preserving this essential biodiversity.
READ MORE: Animal Planet's Guide to Endangered Species
Read more about endangered species:
Lego Artisan Creates Endangered Species for Zoo
Life on the Endangered Species Waiting List
6 Ways to See Endangered Species Without Endangering Them More