Endangered vs. Threatened Species: What’s the Difference

Visit a zoo or aquarium and you are likely to hear a lot of talk about endangered and threatened species. All that talk should be no surprise given that a big part of their mission is to help endangered species rebound. Still, that does not help you understand the difference between endangered and threatened.

For starters, both terms are codified in federal law by way of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a law that was put on the books in 1973 as a means of leveraging government resources to protect imperiled species. Furthermore, the law was adopted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) for use as the legal foundation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

All the fancy language aside, the ESA is a legal framework that protects threatened and endangered animals in both the United States and abroad. As such, the terms ‘endangered’ and ‘threatened’ are understood around the world as having specific meanings.

An Endangered Species


The ESA defines an endangered species as one that “is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” Examples found on the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) website include:

  • African wild dog
  • Asian elephant
  • Chimpanzee
  • Whale shark
  • Sea turtle

It should be noted that the WWF goes above and beyond categorizing endangered animals. They add a number of extra categories to their list including ‘critically endangered’ and ‘vulnerable’. It should also be noted that multiple U.S. states have their own legislation similar to the ESA. For the purposes of implementing their legislative initiatives, the states may use terms other than those codified in federal law.

Regardless of the particular terms used, the one thing all endangered species have in common is the very real possibility of extinction. Just the thought of extinction is enough to illicit strong reactions from even casual animal lovers. It would truly be a shame to see species like chimpanzees and Asian elephants disappear from the face of the Earth.

Preventing it requires a common effort among government agencies, nonprofit organizations, the private sector, and consumers. If everyone who can contribute doesn’t, it only makes the task more difficult. That’s why organizations like ours make an effort to educate people about endangered species.

A Threatened Species


Moving on, the ESA defines a threatened species as one that “is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” This definition establishes that, of the two scenarios, threatened is less serious.

This is not to say that we should not be as concerned about threatened species. We should be. As the good folks at explain, all threatened animals are likely to become endangered animals if no action is taken on their behalf.

For the record, this is exactly why the ESA includes the threatened category. By maintaining a threatened list, the law gives those involved in animal conservation targets to shoot for. Giving them a list of threatened species allows them to get to work to prevent such species from ever being endangered.

The threatened species designation also enhances education efforts at the local level. If you have ever heard discussions about threatened species at your local zoo, the keepers were talking about animals they want you to know about. These are animals that they are working hard to preserve through breeding programs, conservation efforts, and other activities.

What the Designations Mean


Now that we have established the definitions for both terms, you might be wondering what they mean from a practical standpoint. In a broad sense, animals on the endangered and threatened species lists are afforded protection under federal and state law. That same protection may be extended in other countries.

For example, endangered animals cannot be intentionally killed unless they are threatening human life. They are off-limits to collectors. Endangered animals cannot be harmed, harassed, or otherwise subjected to any potentially perilous human activities. Your best bet when it comes to endangered animals is to simply let them be.

Encouraging people to leave endangered and threatened species alone is often a matter of law. If you have ever wondered why fines and other penalties for animal abuse sometimes seem excessive, now you know. Some people need the threat of a severe penalty to make them understand that treating animals in certain ways is not acceptable.

What You Can Do


Classifying species as either endangered or threatened is the domain of the federal government. But that doesn’t mean that the government is the only entity with a role to play in making sure animals survive. We all have a role, including you and me. So what can you do?

The first thing is taking advantage of every opportunity you have to learn about threatened and endangered animals. Visit your local zoo and speak with the keepers. Watch educational programs on TV. Make the time to engage with activists who work on the front lines of animal conservation.

Next, consider contributing to nonprofit organizations dedicating themselves to animal preservation. If you can, donate your time and energy as well. Every nonprofit in the world could use a little more sweat equity and a whole lot of funding.

Finally, be sure the things you do line up with your commitment to protecting animals. For example, use your vacation time to explore the great outdoors and learn about animals. Do your best to avoid behaviors that endanger animals. Simply put, make sure your walk and talk are aligned.

The United States has made quite a bit of conservation headway since 1973. Numerous species once on the endangered list are now enjoying healthy populations and have since been removed from that list. Additional species on the threatened list never became endangered. By all accounts, the ESA has achieved at least some of its intended goals. We have all reaped the benefits of its success over the last 50 years.

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