What is an Endangered Species?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

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.

Elephants still fall victim to poachers, despite endangered species status.
Elephants still fall victim to poachers, despite endangered species status.

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.

Animals like chinchillas are endangered because they are hunted to make fur coats.
Animals like chinchillas are endangered because they are hunted to make fur coats.

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.

An estimated 97 percent of wild tigers have died off since the early 1900s.
An estimated 97 percent of wild tigers have died off since the early 1900s.

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.

Manatees have become endangered because they are often killed in boating accidents.
Manatees have become endangered because they are often killed in boating accidents.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


@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.


@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.


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.

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