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The Sad 5: Endangered animals you don’t see in the headlines

Cape vulture at Drakensberg

The Cape vulture, considered one of the Ugly 5, and now also part of the Sad 5 © Francesco Veronesi/WikiCommons

With the lion’s share of international hype seized by flagship species, lesser known endangered animals seem to succumb to the shadows. Naturally, attention is drawn to more charismatic species and national icons. And while every effort is needed now more than ever to save our rhinos, elephants, and big cats, it is equally important not to forget the little guys.

These five species are among Africa’s most endangered, yet many people don’t even know they exist.

Riverine rabbit (Bunolagus monticularis)

Status: Critically Endangered

Also known as the bushman hare, this lagomorph is one of the most endangered animals in the world. Endemic to the Karoo region of South Africa, their exact numbers are unknown, but it is estimated that there are less than 250 breeding pairs in the wild. Agricultural development is causing the degradation of their specialised habitat along riverbanks, pushing them precariously close to the brink of extinction.

On a positive note, Cape Nature has discovered a new breeding population in the succulent Karoo.

Riverine rabbit in the Karoo, South Africa

Riverine rabbit © Jeremy Bolton (BushCam Consulting)

Pickersgill’s reed frog (Hyperolius pickersgilli)

Status: Endangered

Frogs are among the least loved animals on the planet. Yet these under-appreciated creatures play a vital role in nature. Other than serving as biological pest control and an important source of food for many animals, frogs are also excellent ecological indicators. This means that they provide us with valuable information about the habitat and overall health of the ecosystem – in part due to their sensitivity to environmental changes.

Pickergill’s reed frogs have very specific habitat requirements and are only found in the wetlands of a small fragmented area along the coast of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. Wetland degradation caused by coastal development, mining, invasive species, and agriculture has put this tiny amphibian’s survival at stake.

Pickersgill's reed frog

Pickergill’s reed frog © Nick Evans

Knysna seahorse (Hippocampus capensis)

Status: Endangered

This rare sea critter is the most endangered seahorse in the world. Captive breeding programs have been underway for the last two decades but major habitat reclamation efforts are imperative or the future is bleak for wild populations.

The Knysna seahorse is only found in three estuaries in South Africa and the quality of their habitat is sharply declining due to the pressures associated with an increasing population. The Knysna estuary is heavily impacted by industrial, domestic and recreational activities. In recent times, poaching and illegal trade have also contributed toward their decline.

Knysna seahorse

Knysna seahorse © Professor Charles Griffiths

Golden moles

Status: Near Threatened to Endangered

What does it take for a species to be deemed important enough to conserve? Once protected by the National Environmental Management Act, golden moles are not regarded as an economically important species and are thus no longer protected. Of the 21 species of golden mole, no fewer than 11 are threatened with extinction.

Unfortunately for these guys, they may not last much longer without protection. Impacts from agriculture, mining, urban expansion, and infrastructure development have severely fragmented their range. They now only exist in three geographically separated populations. The isolation of populations leads to inbreeding which results in poor genes – putting the species at risk of extinction.

Awareness campaigns are desperately needed to raise the profile of this highly elusive animal before they completely disappear.

Cape Golden Mole

Cape golden mole © Jon Richfield/WikiCommons

Cape Vulture (Gyps coprotheres)

Status: Endangered

This unfortunate raptor is the poster child for bad press. They are also one of the Ugly 5, and always portrayed as the bad guy in fiction works, but the hard knocks don’t end there. The Cape vulture is the victim of at least sixteen known threats jeopardising its survival. At the top of the list is the contamination of their food supply by means of certain drugs – poisonous to vultures – which are being used to treat livestock. They also inadvertently ingest pest-control poisons intended for other animals. Electrocution by collision with power lines is another critical issue and is a primary cause for the declines of several other bird species. Vultures also fall prey to illegal harvesting for traditional medicine.

An underrated beast, the vulture is crucial to ecosystem functions. Specialised for scavenging, they play a critical role in waste removal and nutrient cycling. Other scavengers depend on vultures to find carcasses. Studies reflect that vulture declines can lead to severe ecosystem imbalances.

Cape vulture

Cape vulture © Bushwise

What can we do?

Over the last decade, previously underrated animals like the pangolin and African wild dog drew international attention and media hype. Raising the profiles of these species initiated increased conservation efforts across the globe. These five unsung heroes deserve the centre stage for the important ecological roles they play and the threats they face at our hands. We owe it to them give them the pedestal, raise awareness, and increase efforts to keep them off the extinction list.

Raeesah Chandlay

Raeesah Chandlay is a South African conservationist and freelance writer specialising in wildlife, conservation, and ecotourism. Visit The Wild Scribe for featured work. Also check out The Wild Pilgrim for eco-travel products, tips, and information.

  • Carol Snyder

    Thanks for posting this information. I found it very interesting and thought provoking.

  • Andre Van Der Spuy

    Excellent article! For the Cape Vulture you can add SA wind farms as a rapidly mounting mortality cause for Cape Vulture (turbines, linking powerlines and, allegedly, carcass rewards) – don’t worry, fingering wind farms does not mean you are necessarily pro-fracking/ coal/nuclear or uncool . Cookhouse wind farm, Amakhala wind farm , Dorper wind farm (Prudence
    Lebina and Mich Noewoudt, GAIA Infrastructure Capital
    Limited) are confirmed as ongoing killers of this species (amongst other species). Official figures are 12 but this is undoubtably higher. Specific figures are being withheld to protect the wind farm industry by these wind farms themselves; Min. Molewa; Dept of Environmental Affairs; and, bizarrely, even (Investec) BirdlifeSA. Furthermore, our Minister of Environmental Affairs, the politician Molewa, has promulgated wind farm development zones (REDZs) within known Cape Vulture habitat where they are KNOWINGLY already being wiped out. Unfortunately for our vultures they are just not rhinos otherwise maybe they might have been worthy of due fair protection. Hopefully some other genuine naturalists, who are also aware of this, will “do the right thing” and also speak out for what is right as theri silence makes them complicit.

  • Jo Loveland

    We owe it to all animals to preserve and conserve their habitat, to stop poaching and illegal trafficking, and to stop breeding so that we leave space for them to live. Every single non-human creature on this earth has a vital role to play in the ecosystem in which it lives. I find it ridiculous that all species are not automatically protected.

  • Harry

    That is why I am against how the animal rights movement is against all zoos. And how the animal rights movement does not recognize the vast difference between bad zoos that have animals confined in horrible conditions and good zoos that take good care of their animals, ad help to save endangered species through captive breeding.

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