Animals that went extinct in 2020 and ones that could disappear after 2021

This year has seen hundreds of thousands of people lose their lives to coronavirus, but in the animal world full-blown extinctions continue to stalk various species. 

Environmental experts have long been warning that we are entering a sixth ‘extinction event’ – and the realities of those fears have become ever clearer in 2020, with countless types of animals now considered extinct.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) latest report said that more than a quarter of the species it has on its Red List are now ‘threatened with extinction’ – some 35,765 out of 128,918 species. 

It comes as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) warned that animal populations have declined by an average of almost 70% in less than 50 years, as eco-systems break down and animals struggle to cope in a rapidly changing world. Climate change, human actions, a loss of habitat and other factors have combined to leave many animals facing a bleak future – and some facing none at all.

Here, we take a look at five species that have been officially labelled extinct this year and five more that may be set for the same fate in 2021 and beyond.

Though there is some dispute about what should count as ‘extinct’ – and many animals not seen for years are still not given the classification – this list is based largely on the IUCN Red List, which tracks the status of animal species. 

The list below cherry picks a small selection of animals we may never see again and deliberately covers a variety of species, from fish to insects and mammals to amphibians, while experts tells us about their fears and hopes for the futures.

2020

Splendid poison frog

This wonderfully-named creature is one of three Central American frog species to have been newly declared extinct. The tiny red animal, from Panama, was highly sought after for the pet trade, and the IUCN has admitted it does not know if the animal could still be alive in a private collection.  

Elsewhere, 22 frog species across Central and South America were listed as critically endangered. The main driver of the declines is said to be a disease called chytridiomycosis.

Smooth Handfish

Greenpeace highlight how this species, which lived on the sea floor, is the first marine species to be declared extinct in ‘modern times’. 

Remarkably, the animal was last seen in 1802 and, despite extensive searches, has not been found since. That highlights how difficult it is to officially declare a species ‘extinct’ and suggests many other types of fish may well never be seen again, despite not yet falling into the same category.

Will McCallum, Head of Oceans at the environmental pressure group, explained: ‘The smooth handfish, declared extinct this year, was the first marine species to be declared extinct in modern times, unfortunately showing that even the seafloor is not safe from the extinction crisis. 

‘For ocean life to recover and thrive we need to put at least 30% of the oceans off limits to all human activities. It’s vital that the world’s governments also commit to legally binding national biodiversity objectives.’

Jalpa false brook salamander 

The newt-like creature used to be relatively common in Guatemala but has not been recorded for decades. Females used to guard their clutch of eggs in the highlands and only lived in the Jalapa region.

There are very few pictures available of the little creatures, who have slightly curved tails and various cousins in the false brook subspecies.

Since the Jalpa lived in trees and wood, logging and farming activities are believed to have been a major contributor to its decline. 

Spined dwarf mantis

This insect lived in shrubland in central Italy and confirmation this year that it is extinct bodes badly for other similar creatures around the world.

Only one specimen was ever found, in Tolentino, many decades ago. 

But the praying mantis has countless sub species and a high number of them are concerning experts at the IUCN. The closely-related Canary Dwarf Mantis, found only on La Palma in the Canary Islands, is in decline and endangered. There is better news, however, for the Giant Asian Mantis, which is now increasing in number and in the category of least concern.

Bonin pipistrelle bat

Like the handfish, this animal is also likely to have actually died out years ago.  

Only one specimen has ever been found but it was only officially classed as extinct in this year’s Red List. 

London’s Natural History Museum has that specimen – though it is not on display to the public because of its scientific importance.

Roberto Portela Miguez, a Senior Curator in Charge of Mammals, told Metro.co.uk: ‘The sad fact is that we know next to nothing about this species and even the reason for the extinction of Sturdee’s Pipistrelle is not known yet.

‘While there was some anecdotal observations from surveys in the 60s and 90s of small bats in nearby islands none have been supported by either specimens, photographic evidence or echolocation recordings, so we have nothing else left but this single 121 year old specimen to learn anything more about the species.’

But Mr Miguez is hopeful about learning more about it in the years to come, suggesting extinct species can still help scientists.

He adds: ‘Studying these collections help us understand how life on Earth used to be, how it has changed through time and importantly could help us protect what is left for the future.’

2021 and beyond

European hamster

Scientists are puzzled by what has caused a dramatic decline in the birth rate of a cute hamster native to Europe, which was once abundant throughout the continent and in Russia.

The European Hamster has suffered severe populations declines and is now also listed as critically endangered.

Females gave birth to more than 20 pups a year on average during most of the 20th century, but now only have five to six. Experts are investigating industrial development, global warming and light pollution as possible causes, but regardless of why, the species is expected to go extinct within 30 years at most if the trend continues.

Dr Mikhail Rusin, who is head of the hamster restoration project in Ukraine’s Kiev Zoo, explained: ‘While conservation measures including hamster-friendly field management and reintroductions have slowed down the population decline in some areas, they have failed to reverse the trend.

‘More research into the various possible drivers of the European hamster’s disappearance is urgently needed to save it from extinction.’

Golden Bamboo Lemur

There are just 50 to 250 of the critically endangered Golden Bamboo Lemurs left in the wild, but they are not alone in being a threatened lemur in Madagascar. 

Almost a third (31%) of all lemur species in the country share the status, while 98% of them threatened, the IUCN warn. 

Paul Smith, Secretary General of Botanic Gardens Conservation InternationaI, said: ‘The decline in Madagascar’s lemurs is directly linked to loss of habitat and native plant diversity. Recent red listing work carried out by the Global Trees Assessment shows that the dry forests of Madagascar are home to 982 species of trees, 90% of which are showing declining population trends, and 59% of which are threatened with extinction.’

It is unlikely that all of the trees or the lemurs will survive.

5 remaining species of river dolphin

Despite major conservation efforts and signs of progress, all five of the world’s river dolphin species are now threatened with extinction, after the IUCN re-classified the tucuxi.

Along with the Amazonian pink, South Asian and Irrawaddy river dolphins and the Yangtze finless porpoise, the five species face many of the same threats, including hydropower dams, pollution and accidental bycatch. The WWF’s Living Planet Report 2020 showed an 88% drop in populations of river dolphins.

Dave Tickner, Chief Freshwater Adviser at WWF-UK, explained: ‘River dolphins are flagships for the health of the world’s great rivers. However, they are extremely vulnerable to the huge changes we are making to their environment: poorly planned dams, pollution and incidental by-catch.   

‘We have the solutions to pull river dolphins back from the brink, but it will take a concerted and consistent global effort.’

Only 89 Irrawaddy dolphins now remain in the Mekong.

On the tucuxi, the IUCN said: ‘This small grey dolphin species found in the Amazon river system has been severely depleted by incidental mortality in fishing gear, damming of rivers and pollution. Eliminating the use of gillnets – curtains of fishing net that hang in the water – and reducing the number of dams in tucuxi habitat are priorities to enable numbers to recover. Enforcing the ban on the deliberate killing of tucuxis is also essential.’

Meanwhile, it says the aptly named lost shark is now deemed critically endangered, but may in fact be already extinct. 

The North Atlantic Right Whale is also critically endangered, with fewer than 250 mature individuals estimated to be alive at the end of 2018. 

It seems unlikely that they would go extinct next year – but some scientists already consider them ‘functionally extinct’ – while a mass beaching event, as has been seen among other species of whales in 2020, could also virtually wipe them out. 

Northern White Rhino

Spare a thought for their similarly-named land-dwelling cousins, too. 

There is only a pair of that species left – two females, Najin and her daughter Fatu – meaning another member of their species will never naturally be reproduced.

Barring a scientific miracle, it is just a waiting game before they go extinct. 

Tapanuli orangutan 

The Tapanuli was only discovered in 2017, but scientists were instantly concerned about their chances of survival. They are now critically endangered – which has been largely blamed on a planned dam.

Lis Key, from international animal rescue, told Metro.co.uk: ‘The salient thing about the Tapanuli orangutan is that, from the moment it was confirmed as a new species, it was under threat – from a 510 megawatt hydroelectric dam to be built by an Indonesian company with financial backing from China.

‘How ironic that, no sooner has the species been discovered than it is under serious threat of being wiped out.’

There are thought to be less than 800 individuals alive and if the dam is built, the future for the seventh Great Ape to ever be discovered looks particularly bleak. 

However, reports suggest coronavirus-linked building delays built could push the dam’s development back to 2025, offering the primates a much-needed lifeline. 

There is also good news for the European bison, which have grown from around 1,800 in 2003 to over 6,200 in 2019, according to a December update from the IUCN, who hailed their recovery as a conservation success story. 

Those are just a few of the success stories which are giving conservationist some hope despite the overall outlook remaining bleak.

Will McCallum, Head of Oceans at Greenpeace UK, told Metro.co.uk: ‘We mustn’t lose hope. Conservation can help to heal our damaged world. 

‘This year blue whales returned to South Georgia, which was once the epicentre of commercial whaling. A record number of baby Siamese crocodiles – once thought to be extinct – were spotted in the wild in Cambodia and, after not being seen for 150 years, the UK’s large blue butterflies returned to south west England.’

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