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Time is running out for these 5 endangered species in Asia

From the Javan rhino to the red orangutan, several species of animals in the region are rapidly disappearing.

Numerous animal species are now at risk of extinction around the world. As the largest and fastest-growing continent on earth in terms of economics and population, Asia has been identified as the epicentre of this environmental crisis. The region is home to the highest number of endangered species on earth, with 3,330 at risk across 10 countries

Every year, wildlife trafficking rings sell up to US$23 billion worth of elephant tusks, rhino horns, tiger bones, bear bile and other animal by-products, according to UN estimates. But trafficking isn’t the only problem: a lethal combination of habitat destruction, hunting, poaching and conflict with humans are all contributing to this rapid decline in biodiversity.

Time is running out for many types of animals, particularly for these five species:

1. The Javan rhinoceros

The Javan rhino is one of the rarest large mammals on the planet. Once widespread throughout Southeast Asia, they now only exist in Ujung Kulon National Park on the western tip of Java island, in Indonesia. Four new Javan rhinoceros calves were reportedly born in 2019, putting the estimated global population at 72.

The second-largest animal in Indonesia after the Asian elephant, Javan rhinos are a dusky grey colour with a grey or brownish horn that’s usually less than 20 centimetres long. When left alone in the wild, these solitary herbivores can live for anywhere from 35 to 45 years.  

Habitat loss and poaching, of which is driven by excessive demand for rhino horn in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), are the mains reasons behind the animal’s decline. TCM practitioners believe rhino horn can dispel heat from the body, treat cancer, cure hangovers and relieve other ailments.

The population living in Ujung Kulon National Park is also at risk from other threats, from infectious diseases and human encroachment to volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Experts also fear the park is nearing capacity for the species, limiting future population growth.

Who’s helping?  Save the Rhino International is a UK-based, conservation charity supporting rhino conservation programmes across Africa and Asia. In Ujung Kulon National Park, the charity is working to expand the rhino’s habitat so the population has room to grow. Other key activities include finding a suitable site for rhino translocations (moving them to a new location) as well as research to establish a second population, using DNA and fertility testing.

2. Tigers

The largest of all the Asian big cats, tigers were once the top apex predator across nearly all of Asia’s vast tropical forests, including those in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, there were 100,000 tigers in the world. According to some estimates, only around 3,800 tigers are thought to remain in the wild, 4 per cent of their historic high. Today, tigers are mostly found in captivity, with between 7,000 and 8,000 of these big cats held in tiger farms, captive facilities that breed the animals for their bones, skin, claws, teeth and other body parts.

Tigers need large areas of land to hunt and roam, so living near some of the world’s most densely populated places has not only made their habitat particularly vulnerable to destruction but also escalated conflicts with humans. Tiger prey, such as deer and wild pigs, continue to be overhunted, leading tigers to attack livestock, thus fuelling retaliatory killings.

Poaching and random trapping also contribute to the tiger’s shrinking presence. Wild tigers are hunted to meet the demands of the illegal wildlife market. Tiger parts are consumed for traditional medicinal purposes across Asia, with heavy demand in China. Meanwhile, around 100 people enter the illegal trade chain to Asia each year.

Who’s helping? In 2010, when the tiger population dipped to as few as 3,200 across the region, leaders from the 13 countries that currently, or recently, home tigers collaborated with the WWF on an unprecedented mission: to double the number of tigers in the wild by 2022, which will be the next Year of the Tiger, according to the Chinese Lunar Calendar. Known as the Tx2 goal, WWF’s global tiger programme could be a significant turning point for tiger conservation.  

A herd of Asian elephants by Rajiv Perera on Unsplash
Asian elephants can be found throughout Asia. Credit: Rajiv Perera on Unsplash

3. Asian elephants

Asian elephants can be found throughout Asia, from India to Thailand to southern China. There are three subspecies: the Indian, the Sumatran, and the Sri Lankan.

Smaller than their African cousins, Asian elephants have been considered an endangered species since 1986, with their population decreasing by at least 50 per cent over the last 75 years. Today, there are fewer than 50,000 remaining in the wild.

Habitat destruction poses the most pressing threat, since about 20 per cent of the world’s human population lives nearby, or within, Asian elephant habitats. Development projects often fragment the animals’ land with roads, mines and dams while simultaneously increasing the risk of conflict with humans. This encroachment also cuts off ancient migratory routes and leaves herds unable to interact. 

Asian elephants are also poached for their ivory, but not at the levels seen in Africa. Whereas, in Asia, poachers more often abduct wild elephants with the intention of selling them. Tour operators, primarily in Thailand, then buy these elephants and put them to work in the tourism industry. 

Who’s helping? Save The Asian Elephants is composed of a team of conservationists, academics, lawyers and campaigners who are dedicated to protecting the Asian elephant.  By exposing the truth about elephant exploitation involved in tourism-related activities, the group influences lawmakers and educates tourists.

Photo of a pangolin. Credit: Paul Hilton for WildAid
Pangolins is one of the most heavily trafficked animals in the world. Credit: Paul Hilton for WildAid

4. Pangolins

One of the most heavily trafficked animals in the world, pangolins are often mistaken for reptiles because of their unusual armour. They’re the only mammals totally covered in scales, and these shy animals immediately curl into a tight ball when they feel threatened.

Of the eight species of pangolins, four live in Asia, where they inhabit dense forests and floodplains, never far from a water source. Solitary and primarily nocturnal, they are trafficked for their scales, which are made up of strong, fibrous keratin (the same protein as our hair and fingernails), and account for about 20 per cent of their body weight. 

Their scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine and African folk remedies believed to cure illnesses ranging from cancer to asthma. Though not the primary motivation for poachers, their meat is also considered a delicacy in China and Vietnam. 

With prices for their scales going at US$1,000 a kilogramme, the rates are comparable to that of ivory, another highly prized commodity on the black market. However, more recently, prices have plunged due to fears of the animals’ potential link to the novel coronavirus.

Who’s helping? The Pangolin Crisis Fund invests in projects that strive to stop the poaching and trade of pangolins. They also focus on educational initiatives to curb the demand for pangolin products and raise the profile of this little-known animal.

An orangutan. Credit: Doug Swinson on Unsplash
The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation is working to conserve the Bornean orangutan and its habitat. Credit: Doug Swinson on Unsplash

5. Orangutans

Known for their distinctive red fur, these large and highly intelligent apes share 96.4 per cent of our genes. In Asia, you can find them in two places: the jungles on Sumatra island, in northwestern Indonesia, and the forests of Borneo, in eastern Malaysia. They are the most arboreal of the great apes, spending most of their time in trees – in fact, the word orangutan means “person of the forest” in Malay.

Once widespread, orangutans have been considered critically endangered since 2000. A century ago, there were more than 230,000 in the wild, but only half remain. In Borneo,  about 104,700 orangutans still live in the wild, while just about 7,500 orangutans are left in Sumatra.

The destruction of tropical rainforests is the main threat to the species. In response to the international demand for palm oil, many plantations have taken over vast areas of tropical forest. This encroachment has had a huge impact on orangutan population numbers, as have logging and forest fires.  

In Borneo and Sumatra, orangutans are also killed for their meat – either to consume or use in traditional Indonesian medicine. In addition, mother orangutans are often killed so their infants can be sold as pets, and many of these infants die in the absence of their mothers.

Who’s helping? Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) is an Indonesian non-profit working to conserve the Bornean orangutan and its habitat. In cooperation with local communities, the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry and international partner organisations, BOSF is currently taking care of almost 650 orangutans with the support of 400 staff, as well as experts in a range of specialised areas.