Where to See 6 Rare Animals Before They Disappear

Lions, tigers, elephants, panthers, sea turtles, and a tiny dolphin face threats to their survival.
(Photo: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images)
Aug 10, 2015· 5 MIN READ
Melanie Haiken is a San Francisco Bay Area–based health, science, and travel writer who contributes regularly to Forbes.com and numerous national magazines.

With worldwide outrage over the killing of Cecil the lion and President Obama’s move to restrict ivory imports in an effort to stop elephant poaching, wildlife protection is having a moment right now.

Then there’s Take a Picture, Not a Trophy, Ricky Gervais’ viral comment, going strong at more than a million shares on Facebook. In that spirit, here are six endangered or threatened animals currently in the spotlight because of their declining populations and how to see them in the wild without causing harm.

(Photo: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images) 

African Lions

What to say about lions? There’s nothing like seeing them in the wild, and there are fewer and fewer to see. While more than 200,000 lions once roamed much of Africa, their numbers continue to drop, with just 20,000 remaining. Habitat destruction and encroachment is one major cause and local hunting is another, but international trophy hunting poses an increasing threat, with conservation groups estimating an average of 665 trophy kills per year.

Where to See Them: The preserve from which Cecil was lured, Hwange National Park, is the largest game park in Zimbabwe, and it’s hard to argue with its prominence in lion spotting. However, with Zimbabwe’s move to lift after just one week the hunting ban it had imposed around Hwange in response to the international outcry, you’d be forgiven for feeling you might prefer to bring your tourist dollars elsewhere. Luckily, Africa offers many lion safari options, from the classic Serengeti, to Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve, to Namibia’s Etosha National Park.

Another option is to visit the critically endangered desert lions of northwestern Namibia, which have adapted to survive in this extremely hot and arid territory. Once numbering just 20 lions, the population now tops 120 thanks to the efforts of the Desert Lion Conservation Project, which closely monitors the lions while leaving them to roam undisturbed.

(Photo: DeAgostini/Getty Images)

African Elephants

With ivory elephant tusks going for $1,500 a pound on the black market, it’s not surprising that elephant poaching is big business. Experts estimate that 96 African elephants a day are being killed for their tusks, a statistic that’s given rise to the 96elephants awareness campaign.

Forest-dwelling elephants are the most in danger, according to the World Wildlife Federation, though savannah-dwelling elephants are also threatened by hunting.

Where to See Them: Like lions, elephants are the big draw at many of the famed African preserves. Some of the best for up-close viewing in a truly wild setting are Chobe National Park in Botswana, Kruger National Park in South Africa, and Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park.

RELATED: 5 Amazing Weekend Trips for Wildlife Spotting

(Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Florida Panthers

They’re the last remaining native big cats in the Eastern United States, and they’re almost gone. With the Eastern Cougar declared officially extinct, the Florida panther wins the dubious distinction of being the big cat native to North America most likely to disappear next.

Experts from the National Wildlife Federation estimate there are just 120 or so Florida panthers left in the wild, living primarily in protected swaths of the swampy forests of southern Florida. Once plentiful, Florida panthers were hunted by settlers who saw them as a threat to livestock. They’ve made a comeback of sorts; there were just 20 to 30 panthers left when they made the very first endangered species list in 1967. The big cats are typically six to seven feet long and tawny rather than black. They’re also nocturnal, making them a challenge to spot, though Florida residents report sightings fairly regularly.

Where to See Them: Your best chance of spotting a Florida panther is in the dense, swampy forests of Everglades National Park and neighboring Big Cypress National Preserve. There’s also a small population of panthers in their own special National Wildlife Refuge, a parcel of formerly private land next to Big Cypress, where five to 11 panthers have been spotted.

(Photo: Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images)

Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles

Six of the world’s seven sea turtle species are endangered, but the closest to extinction are Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The smallest of the turtles at two feet in length, Kemp’s ridley sea turtles live only in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic Seaboard, where they feed on crab and prefer muddy and marshy areas.

By 1991, the population of Kemp’s ridley sea turtles had plummeted to just 200 nests, but since then recovery efforts have slowly gained ground, primarily owing to rules requiring fishing trawlers to equip nets with devices that let turtles escape. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, most recent counts suggest there are now approximately 20,000 nests.

Where to See Them: By far the largest population of Kemp’s ridley sea turtles can be found in Mexico, where they nest on the western coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The beach town of Rancho Nuevo, in particular, is known for the annual arribada, or synchronized nesting, in which waves of turtles arrive on the beach on the same day.

But a significant population of Kemp’s ridleys nest on Texas’ Padre Island, which also provides nesting for four other endangered sea turtles: loggerhead, hawksbill, green, and leatherback. Padre Island’s Sea Turtle Science and Recovery Project offers a unique opportunity to learn about these mysterious creatures and join in protection efforts. Volunteers search the beach for nests, which are then marked and protected or the eggs removed and incubated.

(Richard Ellis/Getty)

Vaquita Porpoises

The world’s smallest and most endangered porpoise, the vaquita is in such critical condition that Mexico made headlines by attempting to protect their dwindling numbers with patrol boats and drones. Fewer than 100 vaquitas are thought to remain in the wild, all of them at the northern end of Mexico’s Gulf of California. Experts predict the vaquita could be extinct within two years if drastic action is not taken to preserve the species.

Small, snub-nosed, and ridiculously cute, vaquitas get caught in the nets used to catch tortoaba, a giant fish (also endangered) that’s considered a delicacy in China. According to Defenders of Wildlife, a last-ditch campaign to keep fishing trawlers out of a 500-square-mile refuge appears to be garnering more support. Sea Shepherd has also gotten in on the action.

Where to See Them: While many types of dolphins are social and people-friendly, vaquita are famously shy. Add the fact that there are just 100 of them left, and your chances for an encounter are slim. Nevertheless, snorkelers do spot them near San Felipe and Puerto Penasco, also known as Rocky Point. Baja guide services know the prime spots. But it might be best to leave the vaquita in peace.

(Photo: STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images)

Tigers

Add the populations of all six remaining subspecies of tigers left in the world, and you’ve got just about 3,200 tigers left in the wild, experts say. Over the past 80 years, poaching and habitat loss have caused the extinction of three subspecies of tiger, and two more (Sumatran and South Chinese) are on the critical list.

Things are looking up though, at least for Bengal tigers, the most plentiful species. In the past 15 years, protection efforts have kicked into high gear with campaigns such as Tigers Forever, a joint effort by the Wildlife Conservation Society and Panthera. The organizations have worked to protect the Hukaung Valley in Myanmar, home to a major population of tigers, though they face renewed threats from logging and mining. More good news comes from India, where the World Wildlife Federation reports the tiger population has rebounded by 30 percent.

Where to See Them: India boasts the largest population of Bengal tigers, with numerous tiger reserves including Bandhavgarh, Pench, Kanha, and Satpura in Madhya Pradesh; Tadoba National Park in Maharashtra; and Indravati National Park in Chhattisgarh.

Rajasthan’s Ranthambore National Park, the former hunting grounds of the maharajas of Jaipur, is ground zero for tiger tourism, with easy access via daily jeep tours in either the morning or the evening. One of the best options for eco-travelers is to work with Travel Operators for Tigers, a nonprofit coalition of lodges and guide services pledged to sustainable wildlife tourism.

In the Terai region of Nepal, just over the Indian border, Chitwan National Park is another tiger haven and also one of the last holdouts of the greater single-horned Asiatic rhinoceros. Once on the verge of extinction, the rhinos are making a remarkable rebound thanks to conservation efforts.