The Ten Best National Animals:Mammals Edition
National animals can tell us a lot about a country, why is one animal chosen over another. One reason could be the species is indigenous to the country and has an important role in their culture. Another reason could be wanting to choose an animal that (they think) embodies their countries characteristics. There are hundreds of national animals with some countries having multiple while others have none. I will go through some of the ones that I find the most interesting. I will skip over the ones we are all familiar with such as Panda-China, Kangaroo-Australia, and Bald Eagle-the US. The most popular kind of national animals are by far mammals(120) followed by birds (52) with a fair number of countries then mythological creatures(7), reptiles(3), fish(2), and finally amphibians with just one country adopting one as a national animal. Countries often have multiple national animals for example the national bird for Americans is the Bald Eagle and the national mammal is the American Bison. Mexico has the most with as seven from a national dog(Xoloitzcuintle) to a national arthropod(grasshopper). With a large number of national animals, I decided to be selective and choose just a few from each kind of animal that I feel are unique and represent their country well. In this first post, I will also just focus on national mammals, I will cover other types of national animals in seperate posts.
There are some common mammals that several countries use as a national symbol. For example, the lion is a national animal in many countries in……….. Europe. Historically, lions were used as a heraldic symbol by European Kingdoms as they were revered for their strength. Countries such as England, Norway, and the Netherlands have lions as national animals. Singapore`s national animal is also a lion for the same reason. There were lions in southeastern Europe but they went extinct there around 2,000 years ago.
Lets move on to mammals that are both unique and have great importance to their respective countries.
Algeria has one of the cutest national animals, the Fennec Fox. Fennec Foxes are native to the Sahara desert that covers most of North Africa. They are famous for their large ears that use to keep cool. They are the smallest canid family, which includes dogs, wolves, and foxes. It’s hard to imagine something this cute being a killer but they are a predator and gobble up small animals, insects, and birds. It is significant to Algeria in a few ways. For starters, they live in Algeria which should be an important factor in choosing a national animal. But as you already know, some countries just picked animals they thought were cool disregarding the fact they are not native to the country. The national football team is nicknamed the Les- Fennecs after the Fennec fox. It is a great choice for Algeria, it is representative of the largest ecosystem in Algeria, the Sahara desert and more importantly, it looks like a Pokemon.
The national animal of Pakistan may not be as well known as others but the Markhor with its cork-screw horns is a sight to behold. The Markhor is a member of the Capra genus which includes goats and Ibexes. They can be found in Central Asia, Karakoram, and the Himalayas. They live in mountainous areas and are excellent climbers. Both males and females have horns but males’ horns are considerably longer. Another difference is that the males smell awful worse than even domestic male goats. Markhor is a Persian word that means snake eater or snake killer because of the folklore belief that Markhor kills snakes with their horns and then consumes them. However, there is no proof of this ever occurring. The name may have originated from Markhor stepping on snakes and killing them or the fact that horns resembled coiled snakes. The cud of Markhor is collected by local people as they believed that it can extract the venom from snake bites. Their horns are used by males to compete over mating rights. They were critically endangered as their horns made them a target for poachers but thanks to the work of the Pakistan Government and international conservation organizations, they have made a dramatic recovery to near threatened status. While it seems counterproductive, trophy hunting is actually what saved the species. In Pakistan, Only four old male Markhor are allowed to be hunted every season with license fees of around 100,000 USD each. 80 percent of the fees are given to local communities and the government keeps the rest. The villagers use the money for much-needed infrastructure improvements and the conservation of the Markhor. But most importantly, the money incentivizes the community to protect Markhor at all costs, they hire guards and police the area themselves for threats like poachers but predators like the Snow Leopard as well. If the Markhor goes extinct, the extremely poor villages that live in extreme weather conditions lose a very important source of income.
Markhor were chosen by Pakistan as a national animal because of their abundance in the country and for their ability to thrive in difficult conditions of the mountains. They are the symbol of Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan`s intelligence agency. They were also the subject of a Pakistani 3D animated film called Allahyar and the Legend of Markhor, which tries to bring attention to the plight of endangered animals in Pakistan. Markhor help lift communities out of poverty, embodies survival under harsh conditions, and its` cork shrew horns give it an appearance like no other animal.
You may associate Peru with llamas but they are not the national animal, it is the Vicuña, The Vicuña is a South America camelid related to Llamas and is considered the ancestor to Alpacas. I never met one but I hope they are not as big of jerks as Llamas and Alpacas. They live high up in the Andes mountains. 80 percent of the species live in Peru. They have are smaller than Alpacas and Llamas and have much thinner wool. Their fur tawny brown is on their back and white on their neck and chest. They produce very small amounts of very fine wool which were prized by the Incas and only royalty was permitted to wear clothes made from their wool. Today, just one Kilo of their wools costs between 400-600 dollars. It is the finest, softest, and most expensive of all fibers. Fabrics made from the Vicuña wool are popular for their ability to trap heat which is what allows Vicuña to thrive in the cold temperatures of the Andes. Vicuña had a major US political scandal, they were the ones behind Watergate. Ok, actually the scandal involved chief White House assistant, Sherman Adams who had a Cheney-like power in the Eisenhower administration resigned after he was caught accepting a Vicuña coat and other gifts from a friend in the textile industry who was being investigated by the Federal Trade Commission.
In Inca society, Vicuña were protected as there was a legend that Vicuña are the incarnation of a beautiful young woman who married an ugly old king who was so grateful that he gave her a coat made of gold to show his gratefulness. There is an Incan ritual still performed to this day called Chaccu where every four years wild Vicuña are herded into corrals and sheered. The Peruvian government labels garments made through their sanctioned Chacchu which requires them to be shorn alive safely returned to the wild, and only allows an animal to be sheered every two years. Profits from the wool go to the local communities that carry out the ritualistic sheering. This system ensures Chaccu is done sustainably but poaching and the illegal sheering of Vicuña is still a major problem in Peru. Some communities carry out fertilities rituals before Chaccu where two Vicuña are “married” and (like most weddings) are made to drink each other blood to complete the ceremony. Wedding gifts can be given to the happy couple. I have a hard enough time buying for humans weddings let alone Camelid ones but I maybe try Monogrammed bath towels if you are invited to one of these weddings. After the wedding, the Vicuña are released back into the wild.
When the Spanish arrived they decimated the population through overhunting, diseases, the introduction of native species, and destruction of their habitat. The species dwindled to 6,000 in the 1960s and hunting of them and trading of their wool was banned in 1974. But thanks to conservation efforts there are now 75,000 Vicuña in Peru and the wool trade is no longer completely banned. Vicuña can be seen on Peru`s coat of arms and are valued for their luxurious wool. Their connection and importance to the Incas, their inhabitation of the culturally important Andes, and their symbolization of elegance are some of the reasons why Vicuña is the national animal of Peru.
Croatia: Pine Martin
The national animal of Croatia is the Pine Marten, a member of the Mustelid family which are carnivorous mammals that include weasels, badgers, otters, ferrets, and several other animals. They are brown with cream or yellow coloring on their throat. They can grow up to 31 inches (79 cm)long including their tail and weigh around 3 pounds(1.3 kg). They can be found in most of Europe. They are the only Mustelid with semi-retractable claws that enable them to climb trees. They eat pretty much anything, their diet is small mammals, carrion, birds, insects, and fruits. They are also a menace to invasive species like the Grey Squirrel that was introduced in Europe from the Americas but is no match for the small but vicious Pine Marten. There is evidence that the Grey Squirrel population goes down whenever they try to move into an area inhabited by Pine Martens.
Croatia`s national animal stands out as it is probably the only one that was used as a currency in its country. I tried paying for my meal with live Bald Eagles before but I was kicked out of Olive Golden for being a “weirdo”.Croatians in medieval times would use pelts of their national animal, the Pine Marten to pay for goods and services. Croatia’s modern currency is Kuna, the Croatian word for Pine Marten to honor their historical importance to the Croatian economy. The front of every minted Kuna coin has an image of a Marten to further hammer their significance to Croatia. The Pine Martin are known as the “golden ones” in their home country for their expert pest control skills. It is safe to say that they are beloved.
Lebanon: Striped Hyena
The national animal of Lebanon is the Striped Hyena, the smallest of the Hyenas. The striped Hyena has a wide range and can be found in North and East Africa, The Middle East, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Subcontinent of India. But they have low population densities and there are only 10,000 left in the world. One of the reasons, they are declining is that humans often target them as they have had a negative image in many parts of the world. Well, allow me to rehabilitate their image and show you that Striped Hyenas should be respected not feared. Their full-time job is scavenging but occasionally they will hunt live prey. There are just a few cases of them attacking humans. They are grey-beige colored and have black spots. They have a mane of fur on their back that they can make stand up when they feel threatened. Another defense mechanism is to play dead when approached by predators. They live alone or in pairs, unlike Spotted Hyenas who hunt in packs. They are also less aggressive, quieter, and scavenge for food much more often. Not being aggressive means that they can be easily tamed and train by humans. Ancient Egyptians would train and use them in hunting much like modern-day hunters using hunting dogs.
In the Middle East, Jinn(Genies) are believed to be able to take the form of a Striped Hyenas. Jinn are nothing like the Genie from Aladdin, they are shape-shifting spirits, are neither good nor evil, and like humans they can eat, sleep, have sex and die(but they are capable of living for 1000s of years). In middle easter folklore and literature, Striped Hyenas are depicted as fearsome, treacherous, and of below-average intelligence. They would eat the bodies of the dead hastily put in mass graves during the times of war so some cultures thought of them as grave robbers that would ransack cemeteries. In reality, they are just opportunistic, and would be pretty stupid of them to pass on an all-you-can-eat Buffet. In Persia, they were believed to be vampires while in northern India people believed they were ridden by witches. That was just their version of Uber “Hold on I have to call my Hyena now so it gets here by the time we finish the last round of drink.” Their body parts are also used in traditional medicine both in the past and in modern times. Striped Hyenas have a rich history in the middle east but it is mostly a negative one with very few cultures viewing them positively. Their association with death makes them feared and hated despite these creatures posing little threat to humans and being a vital part of the ecosystem. They help make the world a cleaner place, they eat every part of animals even the bones which eliminates bacteria that could be harmful to humans. Lebanon conservation organizations are working hard to improve locals’ image of Striped Hyenas to protect the species. Striped Hyenas are the national animal of Lebanon but there is still worked to be done before Lebanese citizens can take pride in their national animal for its amazing appearance and its vital role in the ecosystem. They clean up the environment and protect human beings from diseases.
Bhutan: Bhutan Takin
In the 15th century, A Tibetan saint named Drukpa Kunley also called ” The Divine Madman” came to Bhutan and was asked by followers to perform a miracle. He requested a whole goat and a whole cow for lunch gobbled them both up and combined the bones together. And with a snap of his fingers, the animal came to life and was called dong gyem tsey or Takin. This legend is the reason why Takin is the national animal of Bhutan.
Takins are a large ungulate and member of the Capra genus(Sheep, goats, Ibexes, Markhor, etc). They are found in high altitudes in bamboo forests where live in small herds and grass, flower buds, and leaves. They have long snouts that warm up the cold mountain air before it enters their lungs. They have short horns that turn upwards for males to head butting over mating rights. Even though they can weigh up to 770 pounds, they are mysterious and not known well outside of Bhutan. But that may be changing as more people get a look at these bizarre animals, which look more like background aliens in Starwars than real animals. They are incredibly docile, so docile that when the King of Bhutan was angry that they were being kept in a small zoo in the capital of Thimpu which he felt were against the values of Buddhism. But when they were released, they refused to leave the area and stayed for weeks searching for food on the streets. Eventually, they moved them to a fenced-in forested area on the outskirts of Thimpu to focus on the conversation of the species as well as to act as a tourist attraction. But one problem that has arisen is that opening in the enclosures designed for tourists to take pictures had led to hand-feedings. As a result, most of the Takin in the preserve are obese. They are a vulnerable species with poaching and loss of habitat being their biggest threats. Takin has many things in common with Bhutan, it is peaceful and vegetarian keeping with Buddhist values, lives in the Himalayas, and is not well known by the outside world. Most importantly of all is that Takin is associated with a national hero of Bhutan and a popular legend.
*I recommend looking into the life of Drukpa Kunley, he was a very interesting and bizarre man.
Madagascar:Ring Tailed Lemur
The national animal of Madagascar is probably pretty easy to guess, it is the Ring-tailed Lemur. It can only be found in Madagascar and is the most famous of all lemurs. Its black and white ringtail which gives it its name is what helps it stand out from other lemurs. They are diurnal, omnivores, and live in female-dominant large groups. They are one of the most vocal primates, they make a variety of noises as a form of communication between its troop. They are endangered, only 2000 exist in the wild due to hunting, loss of habitat, and being sold into the pet trade.
In Malagasy(language in Madagascar), Ring-Tailed Lemurs are called Maky. They are the symbol of Madagascar National Parks as the most famous epidemic animal from Madagascar. They become famous abroad due to nature programs like Lemur Street and the Madagascar film and tv series. They are also beloved in zoos around the world and can easily breed in captivity. Their popularity abroad and being an endemic species are likely why they were chosen as the national animal of Madagascar.
Baird’s Tapir is the largest of the American tapirs and largest native land animal in Central and South America. It is a fitting choice as Belize national animal. In Belize, they are called mountain cows. They are named after the American naturalist Spencer Fullerton Baird who documented the species in Mexico in 1843(But he was not the first). Like all Tapirs, they have short trunks that they use to forage for food on the forest floor. They can weigh up to 880 lb(400 kg) which means they have few natural predators, only Jaguar and Crocodile can take a grown one down but it is difficult because Baird’s Tapir put up a fight. Interestingly, they have a gestation period of about 400 days, one of the longest in the animal kingdom. Unfortunately, like many of the national animals on the list, they are endangered by habitat loss and poaching. Their long gestation period and the fact that they only give birth to one baby at a time make it difficult for the species to recover.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo:Okapi
For Europeans, this Democratic Republic of Congo`s national animal was considered a myth despite Indigenous people in central Africa being fully aware of their existence. Reports of an African unicorn, an animal that had stripes of a Zebra, males having Ossicones (bones on their heads that look like horns) like giraffes, and the body of a deer were dismissed until in 1901 Sir Harry Johnston sent its hide to the British Museum. The existence of the Okapi was confirmed to the western world. DR Congo is the only place in the world where wild Okapi can be found. The Okapi has legs with coloration like a zebra but they are most closely related to the giraffe. Their nickname is the forest giraffe. They are diurnal herbivores who forage on the floors of canopy forests in solitude. They are very elusive and we don`t know much about them. It wasn`t until 2008 that an Okapi in the wild was caught on camera. They are even harder to spot now because of poaching and illegal hunting that made them endangered. DR Congo’s biodiversity is unmatched in Africa and the Okapi is a perfect symbol of this. The camera-shy African Unicorn is captivating in its mysteriousness and chimera-like appearance. The Okapi Conservation Project is working hard to make Okapi a symbol of stability and Auspicious times that should be protected by offering alternatives to poaching and educating the public about this wonderful species.
Uzbekistan:Turkestan Sand Cat
Last but not least, we have an entry that rivals Algeria`s Fennec Fox in cuteness, Uzbekistan’s Turkestan Sand Cat. They are one of the smallest wild cats in the world and the only cat that lives primarily in the desert. This cat is known by many names in addition to the Turkestan sand cat, like an Arabian sand cat, and Pakistan sand cat. Like the Fennec Fox, it makes its home in desert environments and has adapted to thrive there. The Turkestan Sand Cat inhabits deserts in the Arabian Peninsula, Central Asia, and Pakistan. Their ears are positioned on the side of their head to help them hunt for prey. They have fur on their paws which means that barely leave footprints which both helps them sneak up on prey and for them to avoid being eaten by a predator. They have a sandy-colored coat of fur to act as camouflage and it is well insulated on the cold desert nights where they are on the prowl for dinner. Because of the harsh desert sun, they sleep during the day and are active at night when the temperature significantly drops. Their prey includes small mammals, birds, small reptiles, and invertebrates. Despite weighing less than 8 pounds, they are famous for their ability to take down formidable venomous snakes. They don`t need to drink water, their prey usually has enough water content to sustain them. Turkestan Sand Cats are a difficult spot in the wild so we still have so much to learn about them. Despite its mysterious nature, Uzbekistan has embraced this adorable pint-sized dessert cat as its national animal. Based on looks alone, if you have an animal as cute as the Turkestan Sand Cat in your borders, you would not hesitate for a second to make it the national animal of your country.