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City Weekend

The iconic Chinese animals heading for extinction

Recreational killing, poaching, civil unrest and habitat destruction threaten some of the country’s most loved creatures

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 April, 2018, 11:02am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 November, 2018, 12:52pm

The world’s last male northern white rhino died in Kenya on March 20, leaving behind two females of the rhinoceros subspecies. Last week giraffes were placed on the endangered species list for the first time after their numbers dropped by 40 per cent in the past 30 years.

Endangered and nearly extinct species lists continue to grow as the world engages in recreational killing, poaching, civil unrest and habitat destruction.

China and Asia at large have seen an uptick in the number of animals whose continued existence is in doubt. This week City Weekend explores the creatures close to home who survive in peril and asks how and why we have neglected the animals we should be trying our hardest to protect. While this short list by no means covers every animal, these are some of Asia’s most critically endangered.

Chinese white dolphin

The Chinese white dolphin, found in the waters around Hong Kong’s Pearl River estuary, is a unique white, or light pink. The mammal, a subspecies of the Indo-Pacific humpbacked dolphin, was the mascot for Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China in 1997. However, despite its symbolic significance to the city, the white dolphin population continues to drop as coastal development, overfishing, water pollution and intense marine traffic threaten its existence. As of June last year there were only 47 white dolphins left in Hong Kong waters, with calf numbers also dropping to their lowest, at 17. The Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society has called for a marine park to be constructed on the southwest shores of Lantau Island to try and arrest their almost uncontrollable decline. 

Fears over white dolphin habitat halt work on massive US$15 billion South China Sea island airport

Pangolin

Pangolins are unique in appearance: their overlapping scales, long olive-brown tail and curved claws mean the animal appears protected in a suit of armour. However, an assumption that pangolins are safe would be far from correct, as Hong Kong’s anteater subspecies is one of the region’s rarest mammals. Pangolins live in tree hollows or burrows in the ground and are occasionally spotted in our country parks, but sightings have grown fewer and farther between as the pangolin becomes critically endangered. The anteater is found in China, South Asia and parts of Africa and is the world’s most trafficked mammal. Their scales and meat are precious to traditional Chinese medicine which espouses their healing powers.

Endangered Chinese pangolin rarely seen in Hong Kong country parks picked up near Sha Tin bicycle shop

Pere David’s deer

First found in China over 2,000 years ago, this reintroduced deer is now only found in the country in captivity, and was completely extinct in China at the turn of the 20th century. In 1985, 22 of these rare creatures were brought back to China’s shores from Europe – a move initiated by French missionary Father Armand David – after overhunting caused them to become extinct in the wild. The deer, or “milu”, is famous for its appearance: a camel’s neck and stag antlers leading to a body with a donkey’s tail and cow-like hooves. As a result, the deer is often called sibuxiang in Mandarin – the “four unlikes”. It is thought to have become extinct in the wild as much as 1,000 years ago, and as a result, for much of Chinese history was found only within imperial compounds.

Endangered deer back on the scene

Giant panda

Once roaming freely throughout China, there are now fewer than 2,000 wild giant pandas left in the country. In the past poaching was the largest source of harm for the panda, but in recent years this has given way to deforestation. The bear is entirely dependent on bamboo forests, which have been increasingly bulldozed to make room for farming, roads and urban construction. Due to forest clearance, pandas can only be found in the mountain ranges of central China that have been less subject to human activity. These black-and-white bears, recognisable to all, are one of the world’s rarest endangered mammals.

Giant pandas ‘to be deemed at lower risk level’ as population increases

South China tiger

Also known as the Chinese tiger, this feline is endemic to the forests and mountain areas of China. The tiger has been listed as one of the world’s top 10 most endangered animals, and has not been sighted in the wild in over 25 years. There are fewer than 100 living in captivity in China, and artificial breeding began in 1963 at Guizhou’s Qianling Park. Once found commonly throughout southern and central China, the tiger now faces a slim chance of survival in the wild due to loss of habitat and poaching. Some experts already believe that as a result of these dire odds, no tigers exist in China’s natural wilderness.

One-horned rhino

The Indian rhinoceros was extensively found across the Gangetic flood plains and Himalayan grasslands, but has since vanished from much of this area, restricted to small habitats in India and Nepal. The rhino’s horn is believed to be a prized ingredient in traditional Asian medicine and thus the animal has been poached to the point of becoming critically endangered. Today only about 2,000 remain in their habitat, which continues to dwindle due to human development.

‘A great ambassador for his species’: world’s last male northern white rhino dies