With an estimated 10-14 million species in the world it’s not surprising there are a large number of rare animals you probably haven’t heard of. It’s usually the rarest animals that are also the most endangered species, at most at risk of becoming extinct.
Across the world, ecosystems have been damaged, depleted, and destroyed by humans for several centuries, and the rate of habitat destruction continues to increase. This habitat destruction is one of several key factors in the ongoing extinction of species all around the globe, along with poaching and climate change.
In 1964 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) established their ‘Red List of Threatened Species’. The list has come to be regarded as the world’s most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of species, with species put into one of nine categories: Not Evaluated, Data Deficient, Least Concern, Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered, Critically Endangered, Extinct in the Wild, and Extinct.
Whilst ‘rare animals’ is not an IUCN status, all the rare animals below are taken from species in IUCN’s ‘critically endangered’ category. Here are 13 of the most stunning rarest animals to be found anywhere, shown in descending order of the estimated numbers left in the wild.
Saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis)
Estimated population: Unknown
Saola deep in the forest
The saola is a large forest-dwelling bovine found only in the Annamite Range of Laos and Vietnam. It’s so rare it’s known as the Asian unicorn – and was only discovered by science in 1992 when remains were found in Vietnam’s Vũ Quang Nature Reserve.
The first photo of a saola was taken in 1999, captured by an automated camera trap set up by a joint WWF and the Vietnam government’s Forest Protection Department. Since then saolas have been kept in captivity for short periods, which allowed the spectacular nature of their discovery accessible to the public at large.
Because of its elusiveness, it’s difficult to put a number on exactly how many saolas there are left, but it’s safe to say that this beautiful animal is critically endangered, and one of the rarest large land animals in the world.
Ili Pika (Ochotona iliensis)
Estimated wild population: 1,000
Chinese pika on mountain
Pika are small, mountain-dwelling mammal found in North America and Asia. There are 29 species in total, and while the North American and most of the Asia pika have healthy, stable populations, the Chinese Ili pika was thought extinct until photographed in 2014 by Weidong Li.
Only discovered in China’s Tianshan mountain range in 1983, Ila pika live on bare, sloping rocks at high elevations where they subsist on grass. Since discovery, their numbers have declined by over 70%, and stand at around 1,000 today. Their demise is due to increasing temperatures driven by climate change which forces them to retreat up to the mountain tops.
Tapanuli Orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis)
Estimated population: 800
Fossil evidence suggests that until 10,000 years ago orangutans lived across much of Southeast Asia – from southern China to Indonesia’s Java. Today there are three species of Orangutan living on the large Southeast Asia islands of Borneo and Sumatra.
Tapanuli orangutans live in central Sumatra, and are believed to be the rarest of all great apes. Satellite imagery combined with nest counting puts the total number of Tapanuli orangutan at around 800, of which 80% live outside protected areas.
This extremely intelligent animal is critically endangered from the loss, degradation, and fragmentation of their forest habitat.
Cuban Greater Funnel-eared Bat (Natalus primus)
Estimated population: 750
Cuban greater funnel-eared bat
The entire population of 750 of these rare bats lives in just one cave in Cueva de la Barca on the western tip of Cuba.
The natural degradation of the cave has led researchers to believe that the Cuban greater funnel-eared bat will be an extinct species in the not too distant future. They will be survived by at least 10 other species of closely-related funnel-eared bats, including varieties from Mexico, Trinidad, and the Bahamas
Greater Bamboo Lemur (Prolemur simus)
Estimated wild population: 500
Greater bamboo lemur
As its name suggests, the great bamboo lemur is the largest of Madagascar’s bamboo lemurs, weighing around 2.5 kilograms. They were actually thought to be extinct until the late 1980s, when a population of around 500 were discovered living in the south east of the island close to Ranomafana National Park.
This rediscovered group is critically endangered, threatened by the destruction of its habitat – specifically by the cutting of bamboo which is used as a building material by local communities.
Sumatran Rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis)
Estimated wild population: 250
The Sumatran rhino is the smallest of all rhinoceros species, and along with the Javan rhino is one of the most at-risk rhino species. There are thought to be only around 100 of these creatures left in the wild in Sumatra, Borneo, and the Malay Peninsula. Attempts to breed these rhinos in captivity have resulted in only two females reproducing in the last 15 years.
If you do get the chance to see one, they are easily distinguishable as they have a covering of long hair, which helps to keep mud on their body to both regulate their temperature and protect them from insects. This biological feature is one that makes researchers believe the Sumatran rhino is the most closely related rhino species to the extinct
Cross River Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli)
Estimated wild population: 250
Cross river gorilla
Although all gorilla species are vulnerable, the Cross River gorilla is the most at risk of them all – in fact, it’s the most endangered great ape in the world.
Living in the forested hills and mountains of the Cross River region, which forms a border between Cameroon and Nigeria, this gorilla now numbers less than 250 in the wild and just one in captivity.
The threats to this gorilla species are threefold: Habitat loss due to human activities, hunting by locals for bushmeat, and loss of genetic diversity due to living in small groups that rarely interact with each other.
Addax (Addax nasomaculatus)
Estimated wild population: 90
Addax browsing in desert
The addax – or white antelope – was endemic to countries across the Sahara Desert in North Africa, but due to hunting over the years their numbers gave dwindled to under 100.
The last surviving addax are the result of breeding programs that have led to conservationists being able to reintroduce the rare animal to wildlife reserves in Tunisia and Morocco. The success of global breeding programs has resulted in thousands in captivity in zoos around the world, though they are still considered critically endangered.
Amur Leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis)
Estimated population: 60
Although there are an estimated 200 Amur leopards in zoos, there are thought to be only 60 living in the wild Originally covering much of eastern Asia, they are now found only in the Amur River basin in eastern Russia and north-east China. On the plus side, there has been a bounceback in their population in recent years, leading to hope the health of the species is improving.
As well as being one of the most endangered wild cats, these solitary animals are also one of the most beautiful. They have a thick orangy-yellow coat with long, dense hair patterned in distinctive black splodges and flecks.
The Red Wolf (Canis rufus)
Estimated wild population: 40
Red wolf in snow
Red wolf are indigenous to the southeast USA, but now limited to a small region of eastern North Carolina where they were reintroduced to the wild in 1987 as part of an ambitious conservation project. They’re still considered a critically endangered species by the IUCN, and it’s estimated there are around 40 individuals left in the wild.
This rare animal is somewhere between a gray wolf and a coyote in size, and are known both for their shyness, and their mating for life behaviour.
Hainan Gibbon (Nomascus hainanus)
Estimated wild population: 25
Hainan gibbon in a tree
The stunning Hainan gibbon is the rarest ape in the world – and probably the rarest mammal – with a total population of around 25 individuals. The apes were previously found across eastern China, but they have suffered badly from both hunting and habitat loss over the past hundred years.
Hainan gibbon are now found only in a single patch of forest in the Bawangling National Nature Reserve on China’s Hainan Island. There are only three social groups actively breeding, and along with its small population size, lack of population growth, and tiny range, this species has a bleak long-term outlook.
Vaquita (Phocoena sinus)
Estimated population: 12
Vaquita – the world’s smallest dolphin
The vaquita is an extremely rare dolphin species on the brink of extinction, with an estimated 12 living in the Gulf of California. Females are the larger of the two sexes, and grow to around 1.4 meters – making our list of the world’s smallest animals.
The biggest threat to vaquitas is from the fishing of totoaba, which uses gillnets vaquitas can get tangled in an unable to reach the surface to breathe. In 2016 gillnets were banned in the vaquita’s habitat, but illegal gillnet fishing continues, as does the incidental killing of the handful of vaquitas left in the wild.
South China Tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis)
Estimated wild population: 0 (with approx 100 in captivity)
South China tiger
The South China Tiger (sometimes called the Amoy tiger and Xiamen tiger) possibly extinct in the wild, with no confirmed sightings for 25 years. There are thought to be around 100 in captivity in China where captive breeding programs are keeping the species alive. There is also a successful breeding program in the Laohu Valley private reserve in South Africa.
They are one of the smallest tiger species, weighing between 100 and 200 kilograms, which allowed them to move easily through the dense temperate forests of southeast China. The South China tiger has stripes that are noticeably thicker and spaced further apart than other tiger species, giving them a striking look.
Conservation in action
It’s important to remember that both the number and makeup of species classified as endangered evolves over time, usually increasing. The predominant reason for species extinction over the past few hundred years is increasing human-wildlife conflict, but there are some pockets of good news stories where species are actually removed from the endangered list.
One great example is the western South Atlantic humpback, where an estimated 2 million population were hunted to the brink of extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries for their meat, blubber, and oil. In 1986 a pause in commercial whaling due to low numbers was combined with a global ban on the trade of whale products and limits put on subsistence whaling. The result today is that western South Atlantic humpbacks are on their way back to pre-hunting numbers.
A similar story can be told for dozens of other endangered species, but by far the majority of endangered species continue to move towards extinction.
What did you think of our curation of the world’s rarest animals? Any animals that surprise you by making the list, or have you managed to see any of these creatures in the wild? Let us know in the comments section below!