No matter how hard conservationists try, some animals just don’t want to be found. Perhaps this isn’t surprising since rare species, by their nature, are very hard to find. But capturing even a few minutes of them on camera can help transform our understanding of the rarest and most endangered creatures on Earth.
The more footage scientists capture, the more they can improve their understanding of their needs and work to conserve the habitat they rely on. But for the public, a fleeting image is often enough to appreciate these animals just a little bit more. There’s something magical about knowing that no human has ever laid eyes on a rare seadragon or a rhino scientists go their entire careers never having seen in person. Thanks to camera traps and other technology, we can catch a glimpse of the lives of creatures from the deep forest to the deep sea.
Here are six images of some of the rarest animals caught on camera. Not all of these species are endangered; some are just so mysterious that we have no idea how many there are in the wild.
Ruby Seadragon (Phyllopteryx dewysea)
There are a handful of types of seadragons, fish that are related to seahorses. But scientists with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Western Australian Museum only discovered the ruby seadragon in 2016 off the coast of Western Australia. They used a remotely operated vehicle to observe two ruby seadragons for 30 minutes, learning about their habitat, autonomy, and behaviour. This was the first time anyone has ever observed the species in the wild. Unlike other seadragon species, the ruby seadragon has a curled tail and lacks the appendages found on every other known species. There’s always something new to discover.
Sumatran Rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis)
The Sumatran rhino is critically endangered, inhabiting only a few parts of Indonesia. It’s the only rhino in Asia with a double horn. They are often poached for those horns, which are then on the black market. The population is tiny; only some 80 are believed to live in the wild. Scientists are trying to keep them safe within wild sanctuaries that include Kambas National Park in Sumatra and the Kelian Protected Forest. There, these creatures can live their best life. Pahu, a female Sumatran rhino, was rescued in 2018 as part of the conservation efforts to breed and build up the population as well. The photo above was taken of Delilah, another Sumatran rhino, at a sanctuary in April 2020.
Cross River gorillas (Gorilla gorilla diehli)
This is the first-ever image of a group of Cross River gorillas. These big guys are critically endangered with estimates of only 200 to 300 left in the wild. As people clear forests of Cameroon and Nigeria for agriculture and livestock, they destroy the critical habitat they need. Some people have also poached the animals, but Nigeria hasn’t reported any Cross River gorillas killed since 2012. The country also hasn’t recorded any sightings of the gorillas since then either. However, new photos — taken only last month — signal that the species is successfully reproducing. Yay!
Giant Squid (Architeuthis dux)
While often a character of horror movies, the giant squid is very much real. There’s a lot scientists don’t know about these creatures, but the expedition that captured the image above informed much of what we know about its behaviour today. In June 2019, as part of the Journey Into Midnight expedition in the Gulf of Mexico, a team of researchers captured footage of a giant squid. It’s only the second time the deep-sea giant has been captured live on camera.
Because they hide thousands of feet under the sea, most sightings of these animals have been dead squids that wash up onshore. When studying an animal though, science requires some live action. This squid appeared to be some 3.66 m long. That’s 3.66 m of terror in my book.
Javan Rhino (Rhinoceros sondaicus)
Yeah, there’s two rhinos on the list. But with good reason: Only 72 are still alive as of 2019. The number of Javan rhinos increased from 68 the year before, but that’s still a painfully small number. The Javan rhino is the most endangered among its peers. Poaching and habitat loss are pushing the species to its limit. Still, the slight uptick in population numbers last year offers some hope for the critically endangered species.
Ujung Kulon National Park in Java, Indonesia, released the image above in early July. These animals haven’t been captured on camera traps too many times, and in-human sightings are even rarer. In 2017, a photographer was able to take some incredible photos of one as part of a science mission. Enjoy this image as much as this rhino enjoys rolling in the mud.
South Philippine Dwarf Kingfisher (Ceyx mindanensis)
This might be my favourite bird of all time. Its plumage is basically a homage to my favourite colour palette. However, I’ll likely never see one of these in person and not just because the Philippines is on the other side of the planet. The South Philippine dwarf kingfisher is one of the hardest birds to observe in the world. It’s tiny and can move through the forest quite quickly. The bird is also threatened by deforestation and is undergoing “rapid population decline.”
The photo above, taken in March 2020, is the only known photo of a baby South Philippine dwarf kingfisher. The bird was only about three weeks old when biologist and birder Miguel De Leon snapped this shot.