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What is an Endangered Species?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 21, 2024
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An endangered species is a group of plants or animals that are now so few in number they face extinction. Without legislative protection, most endangered species will no longer be present on the earth. Since widespread industrialization in the 19th century, the rate of extinction for animals has significantly increased on all continents. Animals and plants can become endangered species due to chemical pollutants, destruction of habitat, or over hunting.

It is a mistake to assume that all animals that have become endangered species have done so because of westernization. Some researchers theorize, for example that the buffalo, which quickly met extinction after Europeans colonized the Americas, would have become extinct from over-hunting by Native Americans. Though colonization hastened the demise of the buffalo, increasing populations of Native Americans might have had the same effect.

This theory gains impetus when applied to the wooly mammoth. It is thought that the mammoth became extinct strictly due to over hunting. No use of chemicals or industrialization resulted in extinction, but growing populations did.

Yet conservationists make it quite clear that since industrialization, more populations of animals and plants are becoming endangered than ever existed prior. With alarming numbers of listed endangered species, conservationists believe the survival of all creatures has becomes more perilous. Extinction causes disruption of the natural order. A predator dying off for example, causes excess populations of prey. Prey dying off reduces predators. The chain effect caused by the loss of one species can affect everything in the environment from plants to animals.

The term, endangered species, may also be a legal term. In the early 1970s, the US passed the Endangered Species Acts. Not all endangered plants and animals automatically make it onto the list. Environmentalists must petition for a species to be considered endangered, and even then, this may not result in endangered species classification, even if the organism is in fact endangered.

This act was an important piece of legislation, but environmentalists have frequently criticized it for placing the burden of protection on individuals, rather than on the government. The act can declare a species protected and limit building, hunting, fishing in certain areas, or specify the development of habitats. Unfortunately, often it does not reach far enough in obtaining the compliance of private individuals or corporations.

In the US alone, there are over 2,500 legally classified endangered species, including over 300 listed species in both California and Florida. The impact of losing this many species from a continent is incalculable. When protection works, species may be downgraded to threatened status. The US and other countries have done a great deal toward protecting some species, but not all have recovered from endangered status.

In some cases, numbers have been reduced so far, that the available population simply cannot recover. Zoo programs offer some assistance by breeding animals in captivity. However, animals bred in captivity frequently do not know how to behave in the wild and cannot be reintroduced even into protected areas. Even with protection, the dangers of poachers in some parts of the world pose significant threat to endangered species. This is particularly true of the big cats of Asia and Africa, as well as elephants in both continents that are still illegally killed to obtain ivory.

With greater caution, it is hoped that some endangered species will recover. Many will not. Environmentalists warn that the immediacy with which most people conduct their lives may ultimately result in our own extinction, as we reduce biological options on our earth.

Frequently Asked Questions

What defines an endangered species?

An endangered species is a type of organism that is at risk of extinction due to a drastic decline in its population and habitat. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), endangered species face a very high risk of extinction in the wild in the near future, often as a result of human activities such as habitat destruction, pollution, overhunting, and climate change.

How are endangered species categorized?

Endangered species are categorized by conservation status assessments, most notably by the IUCN Red List. Species are classified into categories ranging from Least Concern to Extinct, with Endangered being one of the critical levels. The criteria for categorization include population size, rate of decline, area of geographic distribution, and degree of population and distribution fragmentation.

Why is it important to protect endangered species?

Protecting endangered species is crucial for maintaining biodiversity, which ensures ecosystem resilience and functionality. Each species plays a unique role in its ecosystem, and the loss of one can lead to unforeseen consequences for others, including humans. Moreover, many species have cultural significance or provide economic benefits through ecotourism and natural products.

What are the main threats to endangered species?

The main threats to endangered species include habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching and illegal wildlife trade, pollution, invasive species, and climate change. Habitat loss, often due to agricultural expansion, urban development, and deforestation, is the leading cause of species endangerment, as reported by numerous conservation organizations.

How can individuals help protect endangered species?

Individuals can help protect endangered species by supporting conservation organizations, adopting sustainable living practices, and advocating for environmental policies. Participating in citizen science projects, reducing one's ecological footprint, and spreading awareness about the plight of endangered species are also effective ways to contribute to their protection.

What success stories exist for the recovery of endangered species?

There are several success stories of endangered species recovery, such as the rebound of the American bald eagle, once on the brink of extinction due to DDT pesticide use. Conservation efforts, including habitat protection and legal protection under the Endangered Species Act, have allowed their populations to recover significantly, showcasing the effectiveness of targeted conservation strategies.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a AllThingsNature contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By browncoat — On Mar 03, 2014

@Ana1234 - I think that the rhetoric that people use around the conservation of endangered species is to blame. It is all emotional, because they want people to feel involved and to open their wallets.

But I think we should look on this as a selfish enterprise. I love watching animals. I love living in a world with diverse ecosystems. I don't support conservation out of the goodness of my heart. I do it because I selfishly want the world to continue being this interesting and fruitful, for my benefit.

By Ana1234 — On Mar 03, 2014

@clintflint - Well, most of the people who help endangered species understand that the ecosystem is what urgently needs protecting, rather than one or two species in it. In my experience, they will use a poster animal like a tiger, but the funds raised go towards helping out all the creatures around the tiger as well. Which makes sense, since no animal can live in a vacuum.

I actually think one of the bigger problems is simply that people don't understand how conservation works. I heard recently that people were outraged over a zoo that euthanized a healthy giraffe and fed it to the lions.

When maintaining a captive population of animals, you have to be careful about genetics. There is only so much space to go around and it's better to make room for those animals that can contribute something new to a gene pool.

They run into the same problems with elephants in the wild occasionally. They will actually get to the point where the populations are too big in a protected zone and will have to cull the herd to prevent them from damaging the ecosystem.

By clintflint — On Mar 02, 2014

This is such a complex issue. It really drives me crazy that the only animals on the endangered species list that people pay any attention to are the large or cute ones. The ones that have charisma.

There are thousands of rodents and frogs and bugs and various other species that are endangered as well. Not to mention all the plain little plants. But people only ever seem to care about the tigers and the panda bears. It's a wonder the rest of the world hasn't already slipped away while we were busy cooing over fluffy animals.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a AllThingsNature contributor, Tricia...
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