What 2021’s Extinct Animals List Tells Us About Wildlife Conservation

Photo Courtesy: [Europa Press News/Contributor/Getty Images]

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) passed in 1973 changed the global conversation around wildlife and nature for the U.S. The bill was signed into law by Richard Nixon with the purpose of preventing animals and plants from going extinct and helping any organism deemed “endangered” recover to a point where conservation efforts would no longer be necessary. The act was a followup to the formation of the Red List of Threatened Species (IUCN Red List) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, an international organization with similar objectives.

1973’s ESA built upon previous legislation that helps wildlife experts better understand and categorize the levels of extinction among animals with different types of populations. Under the current registry system, an animal can be added to the list under several different rankings. A species that isn’t in extreme danger is considered a candidate (C). If a species is likely to be considered extinct in the foreseeable future, it’s considered threatened (T).

Every year, the U.S. evaluates endangered animals and lists some as potentially extinct. This allows wildlife experts to explore the habitats of these potentially extinct creatures and, from there, make a judgment call as to whether or not the species is extinct. In 2021, the U.S. declared more than 20 species extinct. Let’s look at some of the species highlighted on the list and see if there’s anything we can learn from them.

Highlighted Species Considered Extinct in 2021 by the U.S.

Photo Courtesy: [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service]

The annual list of animal extinctions spans all sorts of organic life. This means plants in addition to animals. It can also mean wildlife that’s not always thought of as “animal,” like shells and mushrooms. This does not include rocks, liquids, and other nonliving things.

The Little Mariana Fruit Bat (Pteropus tokudae), typically found in Guam, is one of the 23 species considered to have gone extinct during 2021. Bats are a vital part of many ecosystems, so this could be potentially damaging for the health of the bat’s typical habitat. The regular-sized Mariana Fruit Bat is still considered “endangered.” The Little Mariana Fruit Bat is the smaller version of the animal that’s no longer being spotted. It’s a positive thing that the species lives on in some way, but the loss of the smaller bat could still lead to a domino effect among other species by disrupting how they coexist in their ecosystem.

Skies may also be missing the Bachman’s Warbler (Vermivora bachmanii) as of 2021. The species has been considered endangered since 1967, which could mean that there weren’t enough efforts undertaken to conserve the species. Historically, this bird has been found across a range that extends from Texas to Virginia. Birdwatchers also noticed that this bird’s migration pattern had changed. This and other changes have been occurring more rapidly in birds the longer Earth shows signs of climate change.  

Under the sea, a number of mollusks and fish have been recommended for extinction in 2021. The Green Blossom (Epioblasma torulosa) was once present in rivers all over the U.S., such as the Tennessee River and its tributaries, for example. This subspecies was deemed endangered in the 1970s and hasn’t been spotted since the mid-1980s. When it comes to sea life, oceans and coral reefs often receive more scientific attention; the fact that biologists are leaving no stone left unturned is helpful for conservation efforts. Mollusks typically spend their time eating algae and are eaten by humans and other predators, playing important roles in their ecosystems. “With the Green Blossom gone, so are the services it provided to the food web and water quality,” Tim Lane, a wildlife conservationist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, told The Roanoke Times.

Plants are species, too, and they’re also disappearing.The Phyllostegia glabra, a type of mint from Hawaii, has been considered endangered since 1991. Hawaii is experiencing an herb crisis among some of the wildlife on its island. According to the Plant Extinction Prevention Program (PEPP), more than 400 species of plants are considered threatened and more than 200 are considered endangered, while only 50 or so of the species remain in the wild.

It’s important to remember that wildlife exists beyond homes, zoos and our screens. Organic life is found on surfaces, in skies, in seas and underground. The full list of 23 species declared extinct by the U.S. government can be found here.

What We Can Learn About Endangered Animals Lists

Photo Courtesy: [Nicolas Maeterlinck/Getty Images]

When it comes to Earth-related news, climate change can make much of it feel distressing. However, not all of the news is bad, and the world has conservation efforts to thank. A shining example of this can be found in China through one of the most popular endangered animals, the giant panda. Pandas have been considered endangered since 1984. In 2021, China announced that panda populations have risen enough for the species to be listed as threatened instead of endangered.

This news is welcome, but it can tell us more about efforts to assist endangered animal populations. As a species, the giant panda has been the mascot of the World Wildlife Fund for decades. Cuter exotic animals like the panda are often used as figureheads to urge and inspire people and governments to support wildlife preservation efforts. Will people still show up to save the animals if a plant, bug or other species that people don’t find as appealing becomes the focus of narratives around endangerment?

What’s also alarming is the sheer amount of time and resources it’s taken to prevent the extinction of giant pandas. For nearly 40 years, millions of dollars and countless hours have been devoted to saving this particular species. Activists have helped the species rise from near extinction to populations in the thousands — but at what cost?

The endangered species list in 2021 is a marker of progress and a roadmap of ecosystems in danger, but it’s also reflective of different value systems. Let’s go back to pandas, which were hunted to near extinction because people wanted them as pets and others wanted their fur. Across the world, animals like elephants and rhinos are similarly hunted for their ivory, which people have used in jewelry, furniture and even piano keys. Human consumption can often be a threat to animal livelihood.

Other animals, like Bachman’s Warblers and the Green Blossoms, aren’t declining in population due to poaching, but consumption is still impacting them. While people aren’t hunting these animals aren’t directly, many are dwindling in number because their habitats are becoming homes and neighborhoods for humans. In addition to the species displacement these activities cause, pollution from human habitats can also directly harm animals’ homes.

Animals aren’t hunting each other to extinction, they’re not uprooting other animals from their habitats. There’s a number of different ways humans can work on minimizing the damage done to ecological systems. Perhaps if humans as a species change their habits, it won’t take as many decades and dollars to save endangered organisms as it does now.