Through climate change, we have irrevocably upset the
balance of nature — humans are driving one million species to extinction,
according to a United
Nations-backed report last year.
For 2020, Earth Day Network’s Conservation
and Biodiversity program is focusing on protecting 10 of these endangered
or vulnerable species. This month, we asked you, the public, to vote on 10
The results are in, and the species below — all currently
endangered or vulnerable with populations declining into endangerment — will
serve as rallying points for Earth Day’s global conservation efforts. See how
each of these species fare and how they’re threatened by human activities and
North Atlantic Right Whale
Fewer than 400 North Atlantic Right Whales remain, making
them one of the most critically endangered species in the world. Should these
whales go extinct, we would lose both a vital part of the ocean’s food chain and
their contribution to nutrient mixing.
The whales are threatened by ship collisions and entanglement
in fishing gear, as well as warming oceans that cause low reproductive rates
and poor health. These warmer oceans also decrease populations of the North
Atlantic Right Whale’s main food source, copepods. And while the whales are
adapting by migrating south for food, this migration could further increase
their susceptibility to ships and fishing gear.
Axolotls are abundant in captivity but nearly extinct in the
wild due to shrinking habitats. The axolotl’s only surviving natural habitat, the
Xochimilco canals in Mexico, are heavily polluted, and water levels are
extremely low from water consumption in Mexico City. Around 35 individuals per
square kilometer were recently recorded in the Xochimilco canals, compared to
the 6,000 per square kilometer recorded in 1998.
Non-native large fish also threaten the axolotl’s population—
carp and tilapia were introduced into the axolotl’s native habitat to increase
the local people’s protein consumption, but these large fish are predators to
the axolotl and pose a serious competitive threat.
Most of us know the Monarch
butterfly from its impressive migration, a route that spans up to 3,000 miles
from Mexico to the Canadian border. But these North American travelers are in
trouble: Their population has declined by 90% since 1990.
This decline is linked primarily to habitat destruction.
We’ve converted most of the butterfly’s central migratory grassland for
agriculture or urban development. Climate change also throws off their
migratory timing, posing serious long-term risks for the survival of our
favorite orange and black insects.
Leatherback Sea Turtle
Leatherbacks face threats both on land and in the ocean, almost
entirely manmade. Because of rising sea levels and urban development, these sea
turtles have less beach on which to lay eggs and are subject to egg harvesting
from locals, both of which severely limits their populations.
Once in the water, if they make it that far, leatherbacks are at risk of getting entangled in fishing gear or dying from ingesting plastic debris.
As an apex predator, the great hammerhead maintains
balance across the food chain. But climate change is driving these sharks to
extinction. As an ectothermic species, the hammerhead’s body temperature
is affected by the surrounding water temperature, and warming oceans are
driving it toward the poles.
Ocean acidification is leading to rapid population
decline, as juveniles are unable to survive early life in more acidic
conditions. Hunting, overfishing and bycatch, and shark-finning for shark fin
soup also threaten these hammerheads.
Asian Elephants, which number about 500,000 worldwide, are
threatened most by habitat loss and fragmentation caused by urban development,
industry, farming and mining. These practices have confined this species to
smaller forests, affecting migratory patterns.
This confinement puts the elephant at a higher risk for
extinction from natural disasters, disease and inbreeding. Poaching and illegal
wildlife trade, though banned by The Convention on International Trade in
Endangered Species, are also major threats.
Giant sequoias, despite their massive size and 3,000-year
lifespan, are not resilient enough to stave off climate change. Warming
temperatures and drier climate cause major stress to these trees, leaving them
more vulnerable to wildfires and invasive species.
Bark beetles — insects that thrive in warmer weather — cut
off sequoias’ nutrient circulation. Scientists worry that these bark beetle
infestations can permanently damage the population of giant sequoias because it
takes 500 years for each tree to grow into adulthood.
The African penguin regulates
small shoals of fish and provides a food source for larger
predators. Unfortunately, this food chain is under threat by pollution,
overfishing, energy production and mining, as well as climate change and severe
These penguins’ main food sources, sardines and anchovies,
are shifting their range eastward due to warming ocean temperatures and changes
in salinity. Alarmingly, African Penguins declined by an
estimated 95% between 2001 and 2011.
Coral reefs are a vitally important ecosystem, providing
shelter for fishes and invertebrates, buffering waves that erode coasts and
supporting a $375 billion tourism industry. Unfortunately, ocean acidification and warming temperatures are stunting
coral growth and breaking down structures.
These changing conditions put stress on coral reefs, leading to
increased numbers of coral bleaching events and susceptibility to infectious
diseases. Other factors like rising ocean levels, extreme weather events and
altered ocean circulation patterns can also destroy coral reefs.
The Amazon is one of the
diverse ecosystems on the planet, thought to hold at least 10% of the planet’s
known biodiversity. Deforestation, combined
with rising temperatures and decreasing rainfall from climate change, however, put
this special ecosystem at risk.
This past summer, thousands
of acres burned in wildfires that went largely unregulated by the Brazilian
government. And climate change makes this fragile ecosystem even more
vulnerable, degrading freshwater
systems, destroying valuable soil and spreading invasive species and infectious