Some animal species look a little weird, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, there’s something wonderful about the weird, a celebration of life in all its diverse forms. Unfortunately, it’s easier for people to direct their attention towards saving our planet’s more charismatic animals, which is why we’re dedicating today as a celebration of the quirky, focusing on three of our favorite species—the saiga antelope, the cotton-top tamarin, and the okapi.
With their prominent noses and large heads on their delicate antelope bodies, saiga resemble characters from a Dr. Seuss book. They used to range in migration through vast steppes throughout China and Mongolia, where they are now extinct, as well as Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Russia, where their numbers have greatly diminished. All together, their population has dropped a staggering 95% in the past fifteen years. Used in traditional Chinese medicine, their elegant horns are the target of poachers looking to supplement incomes in regions where poverty is high. In 2015, a devastating disease of unknown origin struck the saiga population, further wiping out an estimated 40% of the remaining population. These unique creatures are now classified as critically endangered by the IUCN, the organization responsible for assessing threat levels and assigning conservation status to animals globally. It would be devastating to lose the distinctive profile of the saiga.
The tiny cotton-top tamarin weighs less than a pound, and from its appearance, you would guess most of it is in the hair on top of its head. They look like a hybrid of a Q-tip and a troll doll, with their wizened old man faces not lacking in charm. Like the saiga, they’ve suffered a steep decline in numbers, from a population in the tens of thousands to just an estimated 6,000 left in the wild. Prior to 1973, when they were granted the highest level of protection by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), about 20-40,000 tamarins were exported to the US for biomedical research, putting a significant dent in their numbers. Now deforestation and the illegal pet trade further threaten them; a healthy population of tamarins is a good indicator of a healthy forest ecosystem. They may only be a handful of monkey, but they serve as an ambassador for all of Colombia, the only country in the world they live in, and an important biological indicator of the health of the country’s increasingly fractured rainforests.
Okapi are shy hooved mammals that look somewhat like elongated zebras, but are actually most closely related to the giraffe. They’re very rarely seen in the wild, in part because they only inhabit the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and also because they are so solitary. Their forest homes are threatened by human incursion, including deforestation and illegal mining operations. Like the saiga and cotton-tops, okapi have faced a significant population decline over a short period of time; their total population in the wild has dropped by around 50% over the past fifteen years. The okapi is both the national and cultural symbol of the DRC as well as one of the oldest mammals on Earth, oftentimes referred to as a living fossil for their close resemblance to their ancestors some 25 million years ago. Their importance to the ecosystem and culture of the DRC cannot be understated.
Protecting these species is of paramount importance, but so many of them aren’t well known. That’s why Wildlife Conservation Network is working with Endangered Species Chocolate to bring you a celebration of the weird and wonderful for endangered species day, to highlight these lesser known animals and share some fun facts. We hope that you’ve learned something new, and gained a deeper appreciation for the unknown!