Watercolour records show species before they were endangered

As the dangers of climate change become increasingly apparent, more and more people are reflecting on the impact that we have on the world around us. Human activity has disrupted the earth’s atmosphere and ecosystems for centuries. In this post we’re highlighting just a sample of the many thousands of species that are under threat due to habitat loss, illegal trade, and a host of other environmental issues caused or made worse by humans. 

Some of the animals and plants depicted on The Watercolour World are now extinct, and it’s quite possible that others will become so soon. Keeping an archive of pictorial evidence is important as a measure of what has changed and been lost over the years, but it can in no way make up for the disappearance of irreplaceable species and habitats. 

Black Rhinoceros

Status: Critically Endangered

Rhino horn products are regarded as symbols of wealth and status in some Asian communities, particularly in Vietnam, and are used in traditional Chinese medicine although there is no evidence to support the claims that it can cure food poisoning, migraines and various other ailments. As a result, the biggest threat to black rhinos comes from the illegal trafficking of rhino horn and increased levels of poaching. In addition, land clearing has diminished black rhino habitats, increasing their population density and resulting in lower breeding rates and the spread of diseases. Small, isolated groups face genetic impacts from inbreeding. The black rhino population suffered a drastic drop of 98 per cent between 1960 and 1995, but their numbers are beginning to rise.

About the watercolour: Robert Jacob Gordon’s investigation into the African black rhinoceros was one of the earliest studies of the species. Along with the watercolour seen here, he produced a variety of anatomical drawings and descriptions, contributing important information on the morphology of rhinos.  

Bornean Orangutan

Status: Critically Endangered

Bornean orangutans spend the majority of their lives in trees and have an important role to play in their forest habitat. They have been found to have a diet of over 500 plant species, whose seeds they disperse. Borneo’s forests are being stripped away through activities such as mining, logging and agricultural at an alarming rate, with an estimated 300 million trees in Borneo being cut down since 1994. Orangutan communities are further disrupted through the capture of individual animals for sale in the illegal pet trade. This is devastating for the species, which has quite a low rate of reproduction with females typically giving birth to just one infant every five to eight years. There has been a 50 per cent decline in the Bornean orangutan population over the past 60 years.

About the watercolour: George Edwards is known as the ‘father of British ornithology’ because of his influential studies of birds, but in the case of orangutans he probably contributed to confusion about the species. His text in 1758 about ‘the man of the woods’ was criticised for its fanciful illustrations that mixed up the characteristics of chimpanzees, orangutans, and gibbons.

Bluefin Tuna

Status: Endangered

Enforcement and control of the fishing industry is difficult, and overfishing has had a devastating effect on the populations of bluefin tuna with the current numbers representing only around five per cent of their pre-fishing levels. They are one of the most popular tuna varieties on the market, making their capture extremely lucrative. The caging of juveniles to fatten them up for sale is also a widespread practice. As one of the top predators in the marine food chain, their existence is pivotal for maintaining balance in our oceans.

African Wild Dog

Status: Endangered

The African wild dog is in danger due to the reduction of their habitat which pushes them to compete with larger predators like lions, or into direct conflict with humans. The reduction in their range has also led to diseases like rabies and distemper spreading among their populations.

Asian Elephant

Status: Endangered

Unsurprisingly, it is the ivory trade that poses the biggest threat to Asian (and African) elephants. The markets for ivory and elephant skin are thriving, especially domestically, encouraging poachers. The loss of male elephants to the ivory trade also impacts this species genetically, as it has resulted in inbreeding.

Asian elephants have a very important role to play in seed dispersal. They can travel up to 125 square miles in one day, spending 19 hours eating and usually expelling around 220 pounds of dung. Not only are elephants integral to the maintenance of the forests and grasslands they inhabit, they are also an important cultural icon throughout Asia. Of the remaining population of Asian elephants, about 30 per cent are in captivity.


Status: Endangered

Historically chimpanzees have been hunted for their meat, and recent years have seen a boom in the commercial market which the already-declining population simply cannot support. Chimpanzee habitats have also diminished, and many infants are taken to be sold in the illegal pet trade. A 2008 Ivory Coast census found that the population has dropped by 90 per cent over less than 20 years.

Loggerhead Turtle

Status: Vulnerable

The biggest threat to loggerhead turtle populations around the world is bycatch (when they are caught unintentionally in commercial fishing nets). They are also affected by pollution. Turtles often confuse plastic and balloons for jellyfish and can become entangled in marine debris like ropes, fishing lines or nets. Loggerhead turtles help keep the sediments of their ocean habitats in balance, as they recycle important nutrients through their diet. Their shells are important habitats themselves: around 100 different species of animals and plants can be found living on just one turtle.

About the watercolour: John White crossed the Atlantic in 1585 and this watercolour is part of an important archive he created depicting the land, people and animals encountered during early English expeditions to North America.


Status: Endangered

Aye-ayes are native to Madagascar where they play a pivotal role in the distribution of fruiting tree seeds. The Madagascan ecosystem is both unique and fragile, and the extinction of aye-ayes could have a devastating affect on the island’s remaining forests. Deforestation is the biggest threat faced by the species, but they are also victims of superstition. Some Madagascans regard aye-ayes as evil omens who must be killed. Habitat reduction has also led them to encroach on cultivated land, which often results in landowners killing them to protect their crops.

About the watercolour: Joseph Wolf made live studies of aye-ayes in London Zoo, although their nocturnal nature made drawing them quite difficult (he had to do so by candlelight). Because of this and the rarity of the species, Wolf also resorted to manipulating dead specimens into different poses for some of his sketches. 


Status: Vulnerable

As the only herbivorous mammal that lives exclusively in marine habitats, dugongs (also known as sea cows) are reliant on seagrass to survive. Destruction of seagrass through development, pollution and intrusive fishing has affected their numbers. They are also more direct victims of the fishing industry as they regularly get tangled accidentally in fishing nets.

About the watercolour: Dugongs have been mistaken for mermaids throughout history, with their name in Malay translating to ‘lady of the sea’. This watercolour is not William Clift’s only association with mermaid myths: when he was working as the assistant to Sir Everard Home he helped reveal the Fiji (Feejee) mermaid as a fake.


Status: Vulnerable

Poaching of hippos for the ivory in their canines, as well as for their fat and meat, has led to a reduction in their populations. Their range has diminished due to the establishment of new settlements and the development of infrastructure and agriculture, leading to increased population density and aggression among territorial males. The number of hippos around Africa has declined in recent decades with a drop of around 95 per cent recorded in the Democratic Republic of the Congo at the turn of the 21st century.

About the watercolour: Although Robert Jacob Gordons was involved in numerous hippo hunts during his time exploring South Africa, he apparently intervened to stop a hunt that had killed 22 hippos in just four hours.

Polar Bear

Status: Vulnerable

Polar bears are perfectly adapted to survive in their environment, but climate change is changing that dramatically. They depend on the Arctic ice to hunt, rest and breed, but increased melting is reducing their ability to feed and forcing them into contact with local communities as they search for food to avoid starvation.

Snow Leopard

Status: Vulnerable

Poaching and human conflict pose the biggest threats to snow leopards. The illegal trade in their parts has resulted in the killing of hundreds of cats each year. Reductions in their habitat and the availability of prey have also led to an increase in retaliatory killing by humans, as the leopards prey on livestock that herding communities are dependent on for their livelihood.

For more information visit www.iucnredlist.org or www.worldwildlife.org

Author: Meshellae Payne