A tuxedoed bird, a creature with fur of gold, an impressively horned antelope and a hunter without compare. These are four of the unique animals we could lose to extinction. Meet the African penguin, golden mole, roan antelope and African wild dog. By Gaynor Siljeur

Every year, 17 May is designated Endangered Species Day. A day to appreciate the species we are at risk of losing and to take steps to prevent that from happening. As Wild’s spotlight falls on four captivating creatures, we reveal what makes them remarkable and what we can do to conserve them.

African penguin

The charismatic African penguin is known for its distinctive black and white plumage and loud braying call. It is the only penguin species that breeds on the African continent: on islands like Dassen and Bird islands, at Boulders and Stony Point on the mainland, and even in some caves in Namibia.But due to many factors, including climate change, numbers of these adorable birds are quickly decreasing.


Picture Tate Drucker

Why are they at risk?

“Historically there were several million African penguins in South Africa; currently we have around 15,000 breeding pairs left in South Africa (plus around 5,000 in Namibia), the lowest ever recorded number of birds,” says Dr Katrin Ludynia, research manager at the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB).

“African penguins deal with heat when on land and with rather cold water when foraging. Climate change will put more pressure on this species as birds will be exposed to more extreme weather events. Think heat waves, strong storms with high waves washing away nests close to the coast, fierce rain and cold. Not to mention changes in the food availability. African penguins’ main diet consists of sardines and anchovies and the lack of sufficient fish is one of the key reasons for the current decline.”

How can you help?

According to Katrin, we can make a difference by reducing pollution. SANCCOB has to assist birds that have ingested plastic or become trapped in it. “Remove any fishing line from beaches and rocky shores as birds get entangled and swallow fishing hooks. Follow the WWF SASSI guidelines when consuming fish – one of the African penguin’s main prey items, the sardine, is on the orange list.

We’re privileged that we can see African penguins in the wild, but that comes with a certain responsibility. “Behave according to the rules when visiting a penguin colony. An example of that would be to not climb over the fences to approach the birds and touch them,” Katrin concludes. You can support SANCCOB’s work by adopting a penguin egg or chick.

Golden mole

With fur that shimmers in the light, the golden mole is a romantically named animal. But it’s not just one animal, there are 21 distinct species of golden mole. Their fur can vary from pale tawny-yellow to copper and bronze and all the way to green and purple, but mostly with an iridescent sheen.

“Golden moles are subterranean animals, they remain hidden,” says Chanel Rampartab, a conservation scientist at CapeNature. “Their permanent holes, where they nest, are usually about 1m deep. They often create many temporary sub-surface tunnels, in the top 10cm of the soil, where they search for food.”

The fact that golden moles live underground is not the only reason why it’s so rare to spot one of these small mammals. Endemic to South Africa, golden moles face many threats that contribute to their declining numbers.

golden mole

Picture by Chanel Rampartab

Why are they at risk?

Chanel explains that golden moles are disappearing in part due to environmental changes, especially agriculture and mining activity. “Animals like cats are also responsible for the decline of golden moles. Often they are killed by people who deem them to be ‘bad omens’ because they have no visible eyes and live underground. And in some cases, they are killed by people who confuse them with the mole rats that are responsible for causing damage to garden plants and lawns,” she explains.

According to Chanel, five of the 12 endangered and critically endangered mammals in South Africa are golden moles. Of the 21 species of golden moles, one is critically endangered, four are endangered, five are vulnerable and two are near threatened. Van Zyl’s golden mole is so rare that it has only been recorded in one area just inland of Lambert’s Bay. “Large scale industrial developments and mining pose a risk to this species.”

The various species of golden moles are impossible to tell apart just by looking at them. The only way to do so is through genetic testing and detailed measurements of the skull.

How can you help?

If you see golden mole tunnels in your garden, leave them be. They are helping to freshen the soil, cycle nutrients and control insects.

“Do not catch golden moles with your bare hands as they succumb to stress very easily. It’s best to just guide the golden mole into an area where it can burrow away safely. If it is injured, call a vet,” she says.

To protect golden moles for the future, environments that are identified for agriculture, industrial development and mining should be planned to avoid the habitat of golden moles.

Roan antelope

With a superb set of horns, roan surely rate among the most magnificent antelope around. This beautiful wild animal has a reddish-brown coat with a striking darker and erect mane. A body weight of up to 270kg make roan one of the largest antelope in Africa, typically second only to eland.

They find their habitat in lightly wooded savannas with medium to tall grass for grazing and access to water. These beautiful animals are most active in the morning and late afternoon and seek solace in the cool shade on a hot day. Sadly, in South Africa roan is no longer a common sight.

Picture Paolo Giovanni Cortelazzo

Why are they at risk?

According to the African Wildlife Foundation, roan is losing its habitat due to human activity such as agricultural expansion and new road and settlement construction. Poaching is another reason why the numbers of this antelope are decreasing.

Roan is habitat specific and extremely sensitive to changes in their environment. They eat only the top portions of mid-length grasses, so the over-utilisation of grasslands by other species can push them out.

Where Kruger was once home to around 450 roan, by 2003 only 25 remained. Since then several parks have implemented initiatives to help the species recover – Big Game Parks of Eswatini (Swaziland) runs a very successful roan antelope project.

How can you help?

You can support roan conservation efforts by visiting protected areas that are refuges for this magnificent antelope: Kruger National Park, Mokala National Park and Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary.

African wild dog

Thanks to keen eyesight, impressive stamina and co-operative hunting strategies, the wild dog ranks as Africa’s most efficient hunter. Wild dogs bag around 80% of the quarry they pursue, compared to lions’ 30% success rate. But despite their hunting prowess, wild dogs are also one of the most endangered animals on the continent.

Picture by Gillian Leigh Soames

Why are they at risk?

Wild dogs need vast territories and one of the biggest challenges they face is habitat fragmentation. This brings them into contact with humans, who frequently blame wild dogs for stock losses and actively persecute them. It also puts these painted dogs at risk of rabies and canine distemper.

How can you help?

Wild dogs are not as well known as predators like lions and leopards. You can help spread their fame by sharing beautiful pictures and stories of encounters. If you live near wilderness areas, ensure your pets are vaccinated against rabies as this proves a serious threat.