Read an Excerpt
140 Species in Full Color
By George S. Fichter, Kristin Kest
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1995 Nadine K. Fichter
All rights reserved.
Vast seas of grasses once rippled in the wind in the middle of every continent. They were cropped by great herds of grazing animals that inhabited these lands separating the dry deserts from the forests. Along with the grazing animals were the flesh eaters, or carnivores, that preyed on them, scavengers that finished off the remains, and hordes of smaller, burrowing animals that filled every niche in this world of grass.
In temperate regions today, the grasslands are mostly gone, having been converted into fields of grain that are harvested as food for people and their livestock. Grasses still grow on the open lands of the tropics and subtropics, but there the cinch also draws tighter for wildlife as people cultivate these lands to satisfy their own needs.
The heartland of North America was originally a huge prairie — the Great Plains. From the evergreen forests of Canada to the deserts of Mexico and from the Rockies eastward almost to the Mississippi, a waving green sea of grass grew on the flat or gently rolling land. On the eastern side, close to the Mississippi River and its tributaries, the grass grew as high as 10 feet. Toward the drier eastern slopes of the Rockies, the grass was shorter and tougher. These lands were host to herds of some 55 million American Bison and an estimated 35 million Pronghorns. Smaller animals in uncountable numbers shared the grasslands with them.
No land area on earth has supported a greater variety of big animals than the African savanna. About 600 miles wide, it borders on Africa's wet and dry tropical forests. To the north and south are deserts. Near the tropical forests the grasses are thick and tall, and scattered across the flat land are scrubby trees. Nearer the desert regions, the grasses are short, and the land is treeless or has only a sprinkling of thorny shrubs. The savanna originally occupied about 4 million square miles, or nearly 40 percent of the great African continent.
Today the savanna is home to about 40 species of large animals. Millions of these animals once inhabited the savanna, but since the arrival of the Europeans some 300 years ago, their habitat has shrunk year by year and their populations have decreased greatly.
Wildlife is threatened throughout southeastern Asia, too, which is populated by roughly 600 million people. A few large animals, including some leopards and tigers, have managed to survive, but everywhere wildlife is endangered due to hunting and the destruction of habitats.
Long under cultivation, the Eurasian steppes to the north support only scattered populations of wild creatures today. This grassland area, scorched by intense heat in summer and then frozen in winter, is nevertheless heavily populated by people.
Nearly 40 percent of Australia's land is essentially grassland. Here can be found most of Australia's unusual animals, many of which are endangered today.
The heartland of South America consists of the pampas, a treeless plain that in most South American countries has been converted into land for grazing livestock or growing crops. In Brazil the grasslands are called the campos; in Colombia and Venezuela, the llanos. Only the most hostile of these lands have been left to wildlife — lands where the temperature is too high, there is little rain, or the winds blow too strongly to suit the needs of people and their livestock. Here many wild creatures escape the ravages of nature by living in burrows most of the time or migrating to more temperate climates when conditions become unbearable.
QUAGGAS were zebras that once lived on the African savanna. Their name came from the sounds they made, which some people thought resembled the barking of a dog. Unlike the markings of other zebras, a Quagga's stripes were confined to the front of its body; the rear half of its body was a uniform yellowish brown.
Although the Quagga was never as abundant as other grazers, it nevertheless roamed the savanna in large herds of many thousands.
European settlers hunted Quaggas both for their flesh and their hides, which were made into shoes, bags, and other items.
As in many other such cases, the killings were more like massacres than hunts. As early as 1800, the Quagga had begun to be scarce, and the last of the animals in the wild fell before a gun in 1879. A female lived in the Amsterdam Zoo until 1883; then she died without leaving any offspring, as had all the others kept in captivity.
OSTRICHES now live in the wild only on the grasslands of Africa, although they once roamed over similar lands in Syria and Arabia. These largest of all living birds may stand 8 feet tall and weigh 350 pounds. They have two toes on each foot and can run up to 40 miles per hour, fast enough to outdistance most pursuers. If cornered, they slash with the claws on the ends of their toes, making them formidable foes even to large animals. But their defenses have not protected them from the encroachment of civilization and hunters who are after their skin, meat, eggs, and graceful tail plumes, which are used for decoration.
RHEAS are 5½-feet-tall flightless birds that roam the pampas of South America in flocks of 20 to 30. There are two species. In both, a cock makes a nest in which a harem of three to seven hens lay their eggs — totaling 30 or more. The cock incubates the eggs. Although the newly hatched chicks can run immediately, the cock continues to care for them for several months. Like the Ostriches of Africa and the Emus of Australia, rheas could often be seen peacefully grazing with cattle in times past. But larger herds of livestock and hunting have lately made rheas far more scarce.
EMUS are big flightless birds, the Australian counterparts of the Ostrich of Africa and the rheas of South America. Once there were three species. Now only one exists, and it is rapidly becoming rare.
An Emu stands about 6 feet tall and weighs about 100 pounds. It has a broad, flat, ducklike bill. It can run faster than 30 miles per hour and usually travels in small flocks.
Emus have been hunted as food, and their eggs were once collected and eaten. Because they often compete with livestock for food and also help themselves to wheat crops, Emus were once targeted for killing by the Australian government. However, the birds are now protected by law.
LESSER PRAIRIE CHICKENS are one of several chickenlike, or gallinaceous, birds that existed in large numbers on the Great Plains of North America. When the prairies were fenced, these free-roaming birds were forced into small remnants of their once-spacious habitat. They were also heavily hunted, often strictly for sport — the dead birds left lying where they fell. Both the Greater Prairie Chicken and the slightly smaller Lesser Prairie Chicken are seriously declining and can be saved from extinction only by giving them sanctuary on large tracts of protected grassland. There the cocks can once again boom and strut for their mates in early spring, and hens can shepherd their chicks in safety.
WHOOPING CRANES are among the rarest birds in North America. The remaining 250 or so — the total increasing slightly every year since the 1960s — summer in Canada and winter along the Gulf Coast in Texas. Though they are making a comeback, the population is still very vulnerable and could be totally eliminated by a single natural disaster, such as a hurricane or rampant disease.
The Whooping Crane, at more than 4 feet tall the tallest bird in North America, was never abundant. There may never have been more than 1,500 individuals even at the bird's population peak. But Whooping Cranes were originally widely distributed, with their greatest concentration in the Great Plains region. Encroachment by civilization was one of the major reasons for their decline. Overhunting and conversion of the prairie wetlands to farms added to the problem. Today, collisions of fledglings with power lines are the main cause of death. But conservationists and concerned citizens in both Canada and the United States have rallied to the bird's protection. No one ever expects the Whooping Crane, with its 6-foot wingspan, to become abundant or even to reach its original population. But it appears to have at least temporarily been spared total annihilation.
KANGAROOS, marsupial mammals strongly identified with Australia, are mostly victims of habitat destruction. The degradation of grasslands by domestic livestock and introduced rabbits have rendered the habitats of many smaller, grass-dwelling species useless. Also, the introduction of predators such as the European Red Fox, dogs, and cats has cut down on the numbers of some species. Finally, some kangaroos are shot as pests or for their pelts. Protective laws are helping, but for some species, the laws may be too late.
The roughly 50 kangaroo species range from rat-size to kangaroos that stand more than 6 feet tall. Nearly two dozen of these species are now endangered.
Both the Red and Eastern Gray Kangaroo are the giants of the group, measuring 6 to 8 feet long from nose to tip of tail. In constant conflict with ranchers, they are now threatened. Swift runners, they often make the fatal mistake of stopping to look back when pursued. At that instant they become easy marks for hunters.
Also endangered is the Short-nosed Rat Kangaroo, the last of four closely related species that once lived all over the continent. The Rat Kangaroo does best on the offshore islands, where it doesn't have to compete with more aggressive foragers such as introduced rabbits. The Rat Kangaroo has also been a victim of habitat destruction and extermination programs designed to get rid of vermin.
Hare Wallabies were once quite common on the grasslands of western Australia but are now extremely rare. Also members of the kangaroo family, they have the amazing ability to jump to a height of 8 feet or more. Along with several other species of wallabies, they were unable to compete successfully with domestic livestock. Some were also exterminated by vermin-control programs. Several species of rock wallabies that inhabit Australia's rocky, hilly country have fared better because they do not have to compete with livestock and rabbits.
MORRO BAY KANGAROO RATS measure about 12 inches long, half of this length consisting of their tail. With their long hind legs, these rodents look very much like miniature kangaroos, and they also hop like them. They feed at night on seeds, nuts, and leaves, carrying any excess booty back to their nest. About two dozen species live in the American Southwest and northern Mexico. Of these, the Morro Bay Kangaroo Rat of California is in the greatest danger of being driven out of existence by encroaching civilization. Both state and federal governments now protect it.
BLACK-TAILED PRAIRIE DOGS were once the most abundant animals on the Great Plains, their total population in the hundreds of millions. Prairie dog "towns" dotted the grasslands. Each consisted of a thousand or more animals, but one huge "city" is estimated to have covered more than 30,000 square miles.
Despite these large numbers, prairie dog populations were kept in check. Each family marked off an area to accommodate its needs. If a trespasser from another group entered a family's territory, it was promptly whistled at until it scurried back to its own family. But venturing more than a hundred feet from the entrance to a burrow was dangerous, for in the grass "jungle" there were coyotes and other predators. When the bison herds came and trampled down the grass, the prairie dogs could spot predators more easily. If there was any sign of danger, a prairie dog would give a shrill alarm "whistle" that would send all of the animals diving into their burrows. Predators such as badgers and the Black-footed Ferret often followed them into their burrows, but this was part of the natural scheme.
Settlers became the greatest threat. The burrows were a menace to horses, which could easily break a leg by stepping into one of the holes. Farmers plowing the prairie land did not like the mounds and holes or the hordes of little rodents eating their field and vegetable crops. Shot, poisoned, or simply driven away, the Black-tailed Prairie Dog just about disappeared, like the bison. The magnitude of the event was less noticeable only because of the longer time involved and the smaller size (about 12 inches) of the animals. Once unbelievably plentiful, they now exist in greatly diminished numbers, as do some of the animals that either preyed on them or, like the Burrowing Owl, lived peacefully with them in their burrows.
BLACK-FOOTED FERRETS became victims of the campaign to eradicate Black-tailed Prairie Dogs, their principal prey. Never abundant and once reported to be extinct, the Black-footed Ferret has been sighted again. It is now protected by law and should increase in number.
PINK FAIRY ARMADILLOS are among the more than 20 species of armadillos that range over most of South and Central America, particularly in the pampas. The Nine-banded Armadillo has even extended its range into the southern United States in recent years. The Pink Fairy Armadillo, found only in the pampas, measures less than 6 inches long; it is the smallest armadillo and also the rarest. This diminutive creature has only a partial shell, which sits on its head and back as though added as an afterthought. It spends most of its life in a burrow. As with other armadillos, its diet is primarily insects, but it will eat almost any small animal it can catch. Farming has robbed this animal of its habitat, and unfortunately it is often treated as a pest, even though — like other armadillos — it does no serious damage.
AFRICAN WILD DOGS, which are also known as Cape Hunting Dogs, are nearing extinction. Less than 4,000 exist today, primarily as a result of conflicts with humans. Blamed for the depletion of other wildlife and also for preying on livestock, they have been killed both with guns and with poisons. Lately they have become victims of something even more devastating — diseases picked up from domestic dogs. Conservationists have begun a program of vaccinating the wild dogs (and also infected domestic dogs) to protect against such diseases as rabies and distemper. Large tracts of land are also being set aside where the dogs can avoid contact with people and their animals.
An African Wild Dog stands about 30 inches tall at the shoulders and may weigh as much as 60 pounds. Its coat is a nondescript splotching of yellow, black, and white. The dogs hunt in packs that may consist of ten or more individuals, and when in pursuit of a quarry, they may run at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour for several miles. As with wolves, their kills typically improve the population of the species they prey upon because they take mainly the old, weak, and sick.
PAMPAS FOXES live on the grasslands of Chile and Argentina and may also appear along the coasts of these countries. Though at present this fox is not endangered, it is also not abundant. In addition to loss of habitat and pursuit by hunters, it has not coped well with the more aggressive Red Fox, introduced from Europe. Compared to other foxes, the small Pampas Fox (its body is only about 2 feet long) is very slow-moving.
MANED WOLVES live on the pampas of South America. These unusual foxes (they are not wolves) have a foxlike head, a distinct black mane that rises when the animal is excited, and a reddish brown coat. On their long, stiltlike legs they stand almost 3 feet tall at the shoulder and are about 3½ feet in length, excluding their bushy tail. They weigh about 50 pounds. The Maned Wolf is a solitary hunter, preferring small vertebrates such as rodents as well as insects and seasonally available fruit. It has never been abundant and is now in danger of becoming extinct.
HYENAS are often killed simply because of their looks or their unattractive habits. Typically they spend their days sleeping in burrows, then come out at night to prowl for food. They are part of nature's cleanup crew after a predator makes a kill and takes the choice parts. With their powerful jaws, hyenas can crush large bones. They are also aggressive, and working in packs, they sometimes drive off large predators before they have really finished their meals. Two species of hyenas are endangered: the Barbary and the Brown. The Barbary Hyena, a subspecies of the wide-ranging Striped Hyena (which is not endangered), lives in or near Morocco. The secretive Brown Hyena lives in southern Africa, where it spends part of its time on the coast feeding on carrion washed in from the sea. It may also wander the dry interior.
CHEETAHS, like all top-of-the-food-chain predators, were never abundant, but today they are very few. The long-legged Cheetah is the fastest of all land animals in short-distance runs — attaining speeds as great as 60 miles per hour in less than a minute. It first walks toward its prey, then speeds up to a sprint. The Cheetah, which is 4 feet long (not including its tail) and has a small head, has lost much of its original habitat as well as its food supply. Further, it has been hunted for its handsome spotted pelt.
Excerpted from Endangered Animals by George S. Fichter, Kristin Kest. Copyright © 1995 Nadine K. Fichter. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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