Animals in crisis

Martin Wright reports on how the WWF's flagship species have faired in the past 35 years

Over the past 35 years, public concern for the fate of the world's great creatures has surged, while their numbers continue to decline, even collapse.

Each of the five animals charted here faces different threats, but the root causes are surprisingly similar: the destruction of their habitat, in the face of the fast-growing human population's demand for land; and their deliberate killing to meet human "needs" which are at best questionable - notably, use of their body parts as ornamentation and as constituents of traditional Chinese medicine.

Sustained campaigning by WWF and other organisations, coupled with practical measures on the ground, has led to some local recoveries. In very broad terms, the outlook has brightened a little for whales and elephants, while rhinos, pandas and, especially, tigers, are dangerously close to the edge.

Solutions, such as there are, lie both in helping local people to have a stake in the survival of those animals which are on their very doorstep, and in changing the attitudes - and touching the hearts - of those who consume them. Such tasks take time. Time is not on our side.

t 'Going, Going, Gone', an Independent/WWF book on Britain's threatened wildlife, written by Nicholas Schoon, is available for pounds 6.50, plus pounds 1.50 postage and packaging each copy, from 'Going, Going, Gone', Independent Offer, 91 High Street, Markyate, Herts AL3 8JG. As a launch initiative, for every copy sold the publishers Bookman will give pounds 2 towards WWF-UK's Site Safeguard Fund. Copies will be dispatched from November 11.


1,200 Giant Pandas exist

in the wild. Bamboo diebacks

are threatening starvation

WWF's "flagship species" has clung to existence by a fine thread throughout the Fund's lifetime. Back in the early 60s, reserves were seen as the answer. When the first four were declared by the Chinese in 1963, optimism prevailed that these would do the trick. Today there are 13, yet the wild Giant Panda is one of the world's most vulnerable creatures.

The Giant Panda favours a diet based almost exclusively on bamboo. This inevitably means that it has a limited habitat. They're confined to remnants of bamboo forest in the mountains of Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi.

Counting pandas is notoriously tricky. The latest estimate, based on spore analysis and satellite assessments, suggests there may be around 1,200 individuals. As such, they're vulnerable to the natural cycle of bamboo die-back. Every fifty years or so, swathes of bamboo forest flower, seed, and then die. When the forests were extensive, this phenomenon might even have been healthy for the pandas, spurring them to find pastures new and hence avoid risks of inbreeding. Today, it's more likely to have the opposite effect. Hundreds are thought to have died in China as a result of die-back during the 1970s.

Pandas are occasionally "rescued" (a euphemism for capture) for breeding programmes, but there has little success worldwide.


3 sub-species

of the tiger

have already

died out

Of all the world's great beasts, the tiger is closest to the edge. Caught between the hammer of poaching and the anvil of habitat loss, it faces extinction in the wild in a generation.

At the turn of the century, around 100,000 tigers roamed from Turkey to the Far East, from Siberia in the north to Bali in the south. Today perhaps 6,000 remain, over half of these are in India. Three of the tiger's eight sub-species are already extinct: the last Balinese vanished in the 40s, the Caspian disappeared in the 70s, and the Javan tiger a few years later. The South China tiger is on the brink.

Today's "flagship species" is the Bengal Tiger: an estimated 3,000 or so survive in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. Of the rest: around 600 Sumatran tigers still live; 1,200 or so Indo-Chinese tigers exist; while the Siberian is down to a few hundred.

All are under pressure. Once hunted for sport or skins, the tiger is now poached for its powers, medicinal or mythical. They are being killed at terrifying rate. Much-trumpeted reserve programmes, like India's "Project Tiger" have largely failed to halt the killings. Laws banning the trade have proved inadequate: small wonder when a tiger skeleton is worth 10 years average wage in India.

As if this was not enough, the tiger's forest habitat is vanishing. WWF is helping local communities take an interest in the preservation of local forests, and so become the tiger's informal guardians.


There are only 600,000 African

and around 45,000 Asian

elephants left wild in the world

Over the past 30 years, there have been several reports of the imminent demise of the elephant. So far, they have all proven exaggerated. In part, this is due to a largely successful campaign by WWF and others against one of life's great inessentials - ivory. But poaching took a heavy toll, and it still goes on, despite the international ban. Elephants also need space - and in both the forests of Asia and the plains of Africa, that is a dwindling resource.

Three decades ago, African Elephants, roamed in their millions from the Sahara to the Cape. Today there are around 600,000. They have fared best in southern Africa, where powerful anti-poaching controls, combined with the elephant's value as eco-tourist lure, has seen numbers stabilise, even increase.

Elsewhere in Africa, elephants outside reserves are still being squeezed out, with a few exceptions, such as the forest elephants which roam the jungles of Gabon.

But their smaller Asian cousins are faring less well - ironically so, since the animal is honoured in mythology from Japan to India. For centuries, it was also a vital beast of burden, although mechanisation is making it redundant.

One in every five people on earth live in or near the habitat of the Asian elephant, and their numbers are doubling every 23 years. This puts them into direct competition with the remaining 45,000 wild elephants, and it's a contest in which the latter usually lose out. Around a half of Asia's elephants are in India; the rest are scattered from China to Borneo and Sumatra. Outside national parks (and sometimes inside too), their forest homes are cleared daily for agriculture and timber.

As with the rhino and the tiger, who share some of the elephant's habitat, the solution lies in bringing the locals onside. WWF is supporting imaginative development projects which help give villagers a stake in the forests' future.


Of the 11 great whale species,

7 are on the 'danger' list

The past 35 years have, on balance, been a Good Thing [sic] for whales. Today's whaling industry is a shadow of its former self, and widely reviled.

Much of the credit for this turnaround is due to WWF and other groups, which campaigned long and hard to save the world's largest mammals from near-certain extinction. In 1961, the year WWF was founded, 66,090 whales were harpooned in Antarctic waters. The story behind the record slaughter was one of sustainability.

Meanwhile, public opposition was growing, stirred by new evidence of whales' intelligence. The call to "save the whales" became a rallying cry for the general rise in environmental awareness. As Sir Peter Scott put it in 1972: "If we cannot save the whale, we have little chance of saving mankind."

By the mid-80s, the combined pressure of public opinion, coupled with alarming evidence of depleted stocks, was enough to persuade the International Whaling Commission to take drastic action. It agreed a moratorium on comm-ercial whaling in 1985.

But the years of slaughter had taken their toll. The North Atlantic Grey Whale was extinct; the Northern Right Whales hunted down to a few hundred; and of the vast Blue Whale, perhaps 500 survived out of an original population of 250,000.

Of the 11 great whale species in total, seven are listed as either endangered or vulnerable.

Suggested Topics
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'