Feb 1

Species name: freshwater pearl mussel

Nominated by: Freshwater Habitats Trust


IUCN Red List classification: Critically Endangered

What is so special about your species?

Freshwater pearl mussels are magnificent bivalves that live in rivers with exceptionally clean water and lots of healthy wildlife. Pearl mussels are spectacularly long-lived, often over 100 years, and have a fascinating life cycle. Baby pearl mussels need healthy populations of trout and salmon and live harmlessly in the gills of these fish, enjoying a safe, oxygen-rich nursery until they are big enough to begin life in the riverbed. In return, large populations of the filter-feeding pearl mussels provide a water cleaning service. A healthy population of Freshwater pearl mussels shows that a river and all its wildlife are doing well.

Freshwater pearl mussels were once widespread. Sadly, there are very few rivers where these marvellous mussels still live, and even fewer where baby mussels are able to grow into adults. Freshwater pearl mussels are now one of the most critically endangered species in the world.

What are the threats to this species in the wild?

Freshwater pearl mussels are not breeding well because our rivers are in a poor state. Nutrient pollution from agriculture and sediment washing off land are making our rivers uninhabitable for many species. Fish numbers have fallen so baby mussels cannot survive, and mussel beds are choked with silt and algae causing the adult mussels to die. People fishing for pearls, which is illegal, therefore is also a concern, even though they are very unlikely to ever find a pearl in a pearl mussel.

What can people do to help your species?

Anyone who looks after land can help by reducing the amount of pollution and soil running from their land into streams and rivers. There are many schemes that offer support for land managers looking to protect our clean, healthy rivers and help clean up polluted waters.




Feb 1

Species name: Copan brook frog

Nominated by: World Land Trust

IUCN Red List classification: Endangered

What is so special about your species?

This striking, little-known amphibian has lime green leopard spots and deep, ruby-red eyes. They are very small, between 3-4cm, and their latin name ‘soralia’ is a Greek word for lichen, reflecting how the green spots resemble the lichens of its habitat.

What are the threats to this species in the wild?

Unfortunately this beautiful, tiny frog is restricted to small fragments of habitat that remain in the mountain rainforests of Caribbean Guatemala and Honduras. Protecting these last remnants of forest from deforestation for agriculture is of high conservation priority for this species and the other endangered, endemic amphibians that can be found in this region. The other major threat facing this species is the infamous fungal disease chytridiomycosis, which is one of the main causes (alongside habitat loss) for the drastic decline of amphibian species worldwide.

What can people do to help your species?

Support World Land Trust’s (WLT) efforts to preserve Caribbean Rainforest habitat in Guatemala for endangered and endemic amphibians. WLT’s partner Fundación Para el Ecodesarrollo y la Conservación (FUNDAECO) protect one of its last remaining forests, Sierra Caral, as part of their Conservation Coast programme.


Feb 1

Species name: spiny butterfly ray

Nominated by: Project AWARE

IUCN Red List classification: Vulnerable; Europe & Mediterranean – Critically Endangered

What is so special about your species?

Butterfly, diamond shaped, what’s not to love about this ray species? For scuba divers, getting up close and personal with rays in their natural habitat makes for an unforgettable experience. Some of the most beloved ray species are the majestic manta ray or graceful eagle ray but there are so many other rays who deserve love and attention. The spiny butterfly ray gets its name from its wide, wing-like pectoral fins and its short, sharp tail that has one or more serrated spines used to stun preys such as crustaceans, molluscs, plankton and small fishes. This very large, diamond shaped ray has a flat body and coloration which enables the little known and rarely seen creature to effectively camouflage itself in the sandy and muddy sea floor. If buried in the sand, the spiny butterfly ray will often remain motionless while divers pass. They are sometimes spotted around the popular dive destination, the Canary Islands. Rumour has it that there is one that has taken up residence in the harbour on El Hiero.

What are the threats to this species in the wild?

Coastal development, pollution and disturbances caused by humans or their activities, tourism in particular, are a threat to the spiny butterfly ray shallow coastal habitat. They produce few young (1-8 depending on geographic location), making them especially vulnerable to fishing pressure and overexploitation. Noted for the quality of its wing meat and sometimes landed for human consumption, they are particularly susceptible to a range of fishing gear and commonly taken in inshore fisheries. Along the coast of West Africa, large mesh bottom gillnets are used to target the spiny butterfly ray in huge numbers. In the Mediterranean, this ray was moderately abundant but they are now very rare or absent from local catch records. In this region, the suspected population decline over the past 20 years exceeds 80%. In West Africa, abundance has declined severely and the median size has been dramatically reduced as most of the adults have been removed by fishing activities.

What can people do to help your species?

One of the best ways to help the spiny butterfly ray, and other sharks and rays of the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, is to support science-based shark conservation measures. NGOs like Project AWARE and its conservation partners, including Shark Advocates International, The Shark Trust and Ecology Action Center are working hard to gain increased protections for some of these lesser known species. Together, we have formed the Shark League. We advocate for ground-breaking safeguards for sharks and rays at specific Regional Fisheries Management Organisations, including GFCM – the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean. Our coalition is hopeful for effective collaboration in implementing science-based shark conservation measures to safeguard the Mediterranean’s exceptionally vulnerable sharks and rays, including the spiny butterfly ray.

At Project AWARE we love all shark and ray species – from the mako shark to the thorny skate, blue shark to spiny butterfly ray – all Love Species nominated this year by Shark League partners.

Follow #SharkLeague on Twitter over the coming months to learn more and get involved. Thank you!



Feb 1

Species name: Galapagos racer

Nominated by: Galapagos Conservation Trust

IUCN Red List classification: Near Threatened

What is so special about your species?

Galapagos racer snakes shot to fame in 2016 in the BBC’s Planet Earth II when they were filmed hunting baby marine iguanas on Fernandina Island. Despite the scene taking place during their best feeding opportunity of the year, the public and media were quick to demonise the ‘evil’ snakes.

Little is actually known about Galapagos racers. Unlike many other Galapagos species, they are shy of humans and hide away. There is even confusion over the number of species or subspecies of racer snake found in Galapagos. Traditionally three subspecies are recognised, though others argue that there is enough distinction to classify four separate species.

Galapagos racers are constrictors and only mildly venomous, tending to prey on smaller species such as lava lizards and insects. The racers on Fernandina, however, have developed a unique behaviour for a terrestrial snake – hunting marine fish from rock pools!

What are the threats to this species in the wild?

Introduced species are the main threat to Galapagos racers. They are hunted by cats and pigs forage for their eggs – in fact it is thought that this is the reason that they are locally extinct from the island of Floreana. They are also under-studied meaning that population declines could possibly be going undetected.

What can people do to help your species?

Many of the islands on which Galapagos racers are currently found still have invasive predators, hindering their chance of survival. However, along with partners including Island Conservation, Galapagos Conservation Trust are working on an ambitious project to restore Floreana Island which was historically home to racers. Once invasive species are removed and the habitat restored, Galapagos racers can be reintroduced to Floreana, which could hugely improve the species’ chance of survival. We cannot do this, however, without your support. Visit our website to find out more about the project, including how you can help.


Sep 22

It’s World Rhino Day today. To celebrate and discuss, Dr Emma-Louise Nicholls (Deputy Keeper of Natural History of the Horniman Museum and Gardens) shares her insider knowledge and experience in rhinoceros conservation, after her recent return from the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Indonesia.

The Sumatran rhino’s problems began the moment someone, a name now lost to history, first decided rhino horn should be used as a medicinal ingredient. This idea was passed down from generation to generation until, over 2,000 years later, the use of rhino horn is deeply ingrained in people’s minds and cultures. These ancient remedies, now commonly referred as ‘Traditional Chinese Medicine’, are still used today, primarily in China and Vietnam. Contrary to popular western belief, rhino horn is not (ironically- until very recently) used as an aphrodisiac, but rather to treat a large number of ailments including fever, hallucinations, and headaches.

Rhino horn is largely made of keratin, however; and you’d feel just as better if you ground up and swallowed your own fingernails. Nevertheless, hunting these animals for their horns decimated Sumatran rhino populations throughout Southeast Asia and, as the issue of habitat loss also began to raise its ugly head, the combined impact of these two sustained pressures led to the collapse of wild populations. As a benchmark; in the 1980s it was estimated there were around 1,000 Sumatran rhinos in the wild. In 2017, that number is estimated to be around 100.

Sumatran rhinoceros © Gareth Goldthorpe

Until recently, these remaining wild populations were split between Indonesia and Malaysia. Unfortunately, there are now only two known individuals of the Bornean rhino left (a different subspecies), which live in a private research facility in Tabin Wildlife Reserve in Sabah, Malaysia. On a positive note, these two remaining individuals are a male and female; generally accepted as the two primary requirements of a breeding programme. However, even if intensive breeding of their would-be sibling-offspring wasn’t an evolutionary no-no, in a cruel twist of fate Sumatran rhinos that haven’t produced offspring by a certain age often develop cysts in the uterus and can become unable to conceive anyway. As is the case for Iman, the last known remaining female Bornean rhino.

The largest known wild Sumatran rhino populations, holding on with all 12 toes in Indonesia, are now restricted to three national parks, all on the island of Sumatra. Having separate populations is good for genetic diversity, and if a natural disaster or disease should wipe out one population then the species will still persist due to those that were isolated from it. If, for example, a large tsunami hit the northern edge of Java (heaven forbid) where Ujung Kulon National Park is located, it could well wipe out the entire Javan rhino species, as there are no other populations anywhere in the world. On the other hand, if numbers of Sumatran rhino are so thin in each of the three parks that male and female rhinos won’t find each other, then short of joining Sudan on Tinder, making babies in the wild becomes exceptionally difficult, meaning perhaps bringing them together is the better option. Faced with this unenviable quandary, a lot of conservationists feel the answer is in a captive breeding programme with the aim of repopulating the wild habitat with captive-born rhinos.

The dense habitat preferred by the Sumatran rhinoceros is difficult for conservationists to penetrate in search of the elusive species. © E-L Nicholls by permission of International Rhino Foundation/Yayasan Badak Indonesia Foundation

Scientists find the key

The first known record of a Sumatran rhino to be born in captivity was in Calcutta, India in 1889. Although the specific details are irritatingly lost to history, rhino experts seem to feel there is enough evidence to substantiate the story. Nearly 100 years after India perhaps unintentionally made rhino history, the need for a captive breeding programme became urgent and so between 1984 and 1996, 40 of the approximately 1,000 Sumatran rhinos persisting in the wild at the time were captured (from both Indonesia and Malaysia) to form a worldwide collaborative captive breeding programme. The wild-caught rhinos were split up between Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the United States, and the UK who all tried their hand at breeding these enigmatic animals.

Thirteen years later, the pitter patter of tiny rhino feet was still absent from zookeepers’ ears and so in 1997 scientists at Cincinnati Zoo led by Dr Terri Roth (Vice President of Conservation and Science, and Director of the Centre for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife; CREW) turned to endocrinology and ultrasonography. A long and complicated story of science, frustration, grumpy rhinos, and no mating unravelled until Dr Roth and her team finally discovered that Sumatran rhinos are in fact induced ovulators. This means that a female won’t come into oestrus until she has had ‘special time’ with a male, after which, she obviously needs to gain in order to conceive. This was an exceptional breakthrough, and one that resulted in the first Sumatran rhino born in captivity in 112 years when Ipuh, one of the last three rhinos surviving from the original project initiated in 1984, successfully mated with a female called Emi, and with that a heavy hairy miracle was born. With all of their new found expertise in rhino romance, the CREW team managed to help Ipuh and Emi produce two more babies- a female called Suci in 2004, and a male called Harapan in 2007.

Born in 2001 at Cincinnati Zoo, Andalas was the first Sumatran rhinoceros born in captivity in 112 years and as such, represented a huge breakthrough for his species. © E-L Nicholls by permission of International Rhino Foundation/Yayasan Badak Indonesia Foundation

Meanwhile in Indonesia

As scientists in Cincinnati were working on unravelling the mysteries of the Sumatran rhino’s reproductive requirements, on the other side of the world the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary was completed in Sumatra, Indonesia, and in 1998 opened its doors to its first residents; two females, Dusun and Bina, and one male, Torgamba. Two more females, Ratu and Rosa, arrived in 2005. Yet despite being spoilt for choice on the dating scene, Torgamba sadly wasn’t up to the task and the breeding programme appeared to be failing.

Fortunately for Sumatran rhinos, in 2007 Dr Roth and her rhino specialist team gave the programme’s first born male, Emi and Ipuh’s first calf Andalas – now six years old, to the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in a bid to save the day. It turned out to be worth their heartache as in 2012 Andalas became a first-time father and the number of Sumatran rhinos in the world went up by another one. One is a significant number when there are so few remaining, and Andatu, Andalas’s son, made history when he became the first baby rhino born at the SRS.

Andalas is obviously enjoying his new life as chief baby-maker as he and his ‘partner’, Ratu, successfully bred again and in 2016 had a girl called Delilah. By 2014, Harapan (Andalas’s younger brother, born at Cincinnati Zoo) became the only Sumatran remaining outside of Indonesia and Malaysia and so the Cincinnati team decided to let him follow in his brother’s footsteps and sent him too, to the SRS in Indonesia.

Now five years old, Andatu was the first rhinoceros born at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Indonesia. His parents are Cincinnati Zoo-born male Andalas, and wild-caught female Ratu. © E-L Nicholls by permission of International Rhino Foundation/Yayasan Badak Indonesia Foundation

The future

Hunting and habitat loss have decimated wild numbers of rhinos to a point where physiology is now their main problem (although the aforementioned issues also persist). The need for induced ovulation, as well as the fact that cysts can develop in the uterus if females remain unmated, both mean that with so few rhinos in the wild, many females are likely to become unable to conceive. The stability of wild Sumatran rhino populations remains in question and captive breeding programmes used to boost numbers in the wild seem to be the most viable way of increasing their numbers to a level where they’ll regularly be able to breed naturally in the wild again.

In 2017, now armed with an entire crash (the official, not to mention delightful, collective noun for rhinos) including both males and females, the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary is on a path paved with hope and optimism. Andalas and his rhino team are undoubtedly working hard to produce more bundles of joy, and with the high levels of expertise and dedication witnessed first-hand at the SRS, there is definitely hope for the Sumatran rhino yet.

Although each animal lives semi-wild in its own 10-20km2 enclosure of primary forest habitat, their health is monitored daily by their keepers. Here Harapan is having his temperature taken as he nonchalantly hoovers up some carrots. © E-L Nicholls by permission of International Rhino Foundation/Yayasan Badak Indonesia Foundation

Find out more about the Sumatran rhinoceros on Arkive

Visit the International Rhino Foundation website

Follow Dr Nicholls on Twitter



RSS feedArkive.org is the place for films, photos and facts about endangered species. Subscribe to our blog today to keep up to date!

Email updates

Sign up to receive a regular email digest of Arkive blog posts.
Preferred frequency:

Arkive twitter

Twitter: ARKive