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Why Do Animals Become Endangered?

The heavy use and pollution of China's rivers has driven the baiji dolphin into functional extinction.
Excessive hunting drove many whale species, like the humpback, into near extinction.
The introduction of the house cat to Australia's ecosystem nearly exterminated the numbat.
Manatees have become endangered because they are often killed in boating accidents.
Tigers have become endangered due to hunting and habitat loss.
Colony collapse disorder has significantly reduced the number of honeybees worldwide.
Animals like chinchillas are endangered because they are hunted to make fur coats.
Deforestation is a major threat to some species of animals.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists polar bears as being "vulnerable".
The existence of many freshwater dolphins, including many river dolphins in Asia and South America, is threatened.
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  • Originally Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Revised By: Wanda Marie Thibodeaux
  • Edited By: Lucy Oppenheimer
  • Last Modified Date: 20 November 2014
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Animals can become endangered for a number of different reasons, but many experts believe that loss of habitat is frequently the main cause. Pollution can also damage a population, as can overhunting and overfishing. In other words, the activities of human beings are the biggest problems. Predation and the introduction of new animals, disease and food chain disruption also contribute, however, and it is common for more than one issue to put creatures at risk.

Habitat Loss

Some animals become endangered when people take over their habitats, which often happens because individuals or groups want one or more resources those areas have. Commercial deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, for example, provides lumber that is used for things like construction, paper and furniture, but it has seriously reduced the population of many species and led to the extinction of others. Land itself is a important resource to humans, because it provides living, building and farming space.

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In some instances, loss of habitat occurs naturally, such as with forest fires or flooding of land over time. These cases are much harder to predict, but people sometimes can reduce or even reverse the effects through simple techniques like planting trees. Even these methods take time, however, so environmentalists and zoologists are frequently in a race against the clock in order to keep numbers of populations from declining too severely. They sometimes have to use alternate methods, such as capturing or raising animals in captivity to be released in a specific location.

Sometimes, people influence natural phenomena, indirectly causing habitat loss. A good example are polar bears, which are slowly losing habitat as rising global temperatures cause sea ice to melt. Experts believe that individuals are making the problem worse primarily through the emission of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide. It is not always clear how much influence people have, however. The greenhouse effect can influence weather patterns that affect animals, for instance, but it's difficult to measure the percentage of global warming that relates to human activities.

Environmental Pollution

Commercial and industrial operations may reduce land or water for animals and pollute an animal’s environment. The baiji, a fresh water dolphin species native to China, lived in a major river that became very polluted; it has been declared functionally extinct, meaning that it’s unlikely the population can recover. Even noise from human activities can lead to the disruption of animal behavior. Some experts point to Navy sonar testing, which can alter migratory patterns of certain whales, as a possible explanation for groups of these animals beaching themselves.

Overhunting and Overfishing

Another factor that makes animals become endangered is overfishing or overhunting. Some environmental groups point to hunting as an immediate threat to many large animals, such as jaguars, and claim that as much as 25% of species are declining because of human activity. Experts believe that the extinction of the American passenger pigeon is due almost entirely to over-hunting. In the 1600s, these birds made up between 25 - 40% of the bird population in the United States. At the time, no laws governed how many of them a hunter could take, so people killed millions for meat over the next 300 years. The last passenger pigeon died in captivity in 1921. Similarly, commercial whaling led to near extinction of many types of whales before most, but not all, countries agreed to ban this practice.

New Species and Predation

The introduction of an non-native species to an area might contribute to others becoming endangered. Animals that are native to the environment might not have any defense against a new predator, making them easy to kill. In Australia, the introduction of the common house cat led to the extinction of the red-fronted parakeet and has seriously damaged the populations of several small mammals, including the bilby and the numbat. Even if the creatures that are introduced aren't predatory, they can compete for food, water and living space.

Disease

Disease has the potential to devastate populations of different animals. As an example, an epidemic of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), better known as mad cow disease, killed hundreds of thousands of cattle worldwide starting around 1970. Some of these diseases can be attributed to genetics or affect only one species, but many can pass from one type of animal to another. The introduction of new species to an environment, including people, sometimes is problematic for this reason.

Problems in the Food Chain

When animals become endangered, the entire food chain can be affected, and even the status of the smallest of animals can have a profound effect. Scientists believe, for example, that a disease caused by a mite-transmitted virus has seriously threatened honeybee populations world wide. These insects are largely responsible for pollinating flowering plants, including many fruits and vegetables. Without their pollination, thousands of species could lose a source of food and shelter, which further affects the higher-level creatures that consume those animals.

Combination of Problems

Species can become endangered due to a combination of several of these factors. A species that's fighting both habitat loss and pollution, like the baiji, for example, may die off more quickly than either alone would cause. The combination of factors also makes it much more difficult to save animals from extinction. Doing so usually requires a collective effort from many people, which is sometimes difficult to achieve because of cultural and economic differences between regions.

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Discuss this Article

anon294419
Post 12

So, basically, if you disrupt a food chain, huge changes occur that could even kill off every animal in existence, right?

anon160713
Post 7

Thanks, This is a class project and we needed to find out about the endangered species blue whale.

anon158196
Post 6

Wow,I learned so much and very interesting facts. I can't believe that there are so many other reasons to extinction other than pollution.

closerfan12
Post 4

I just heard that zebras are endangered now -- zebras! How on earth did zebras become endangered; I thought there were millions of them.

Why are zebras endangered?

LittleMan
Post 3

Thanks -- this really helped me with my essay topic on what causes animals to become endangered. I really liked how detailed and clear this article was, and how it remained unbiased.

StreamFinder
Post 2

Would you say that there is one primary cause for the threats to the most endangered mammals today, such as overhunting or invasive species, or is it a cocktail of reasons?

For instance, I was asking someone the other day, "Why are gorillas endangered," and they told me that it was due to a combination of deforestation, poaching, and the violence caused by the civil wars.

Would you say that this kind of "combination" situation is the likely cause of endangerment for many endangered African animals, or indeed, animals worldwide?

I mean, obviously it wouldn't be the same mixture of reasons; I mean, the dangers to endangered turtles couldn't be the same as those for giant pandas.

I guess I'd just like to know a little bit more about endangered animal facts, specifically as related to mixtures of causes for animals going extinct.

Thanks!

hrquir
Post 1

The United States Endangered Species Act (U.S. ESA) is the primary legislation that provides for federal protection for any threatened or endangered species within the United States. The U.S. ESA was passed in 1973 and signed by President Nixon because economic growth and development was threatening wildlife.

The actual protection is carried out by the Fish and Wildlife Service in connection with The National Marine Fisheries Service. The act does not only provide safety for animals and their subspecies, but also for plant species including fungi and lichens.

The act explains that "endangered" refers to species that are in danger of extinction within the near future. "Threatened" species refer to those animal and plants that potentially will become endangered in the future.

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