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10 Cute, Rare Animals To Seek Out On Your Gap Year

Written by Jenny McWhirter on 12 / 08 / 2016

Gap Year Advice

We are huge animal lovers over here at The Leap, and try to do as much as we can to help preserve endangered, cute, rare animals as part of our gap year programmes across the world.

Sadly, for many of them, time isn't on their side...will they be here in 5 years time? Many leading conservationist think not and it's a battle The Leap joined some years ago by supporting through volunteer manpower! To date we have sent 1000's of volunteers to help protect and prolong their stay on our planet. Go Leapers!

But to keep it light and to encourage anyone out there interested in conservation...check out our favourite cute, rare animals that need a little bit of love and protection in their life.

If nothing else the pictures are guaranteed to bring the "ahhhh" out in you. Or maybe not...


Most people may remember these seriously cute, rare animals from the film Madagascar, where they appear to rule the island, led by the lemur lord – King Julian. While this isn’t entirely factually accurate, lemurs are thought of as the flagship animals of the island, with the absence of any other dominant form of primate.

Madagascar is the only place on earth where you can find lemurs, so if you want to see these cute, rare animals (some species of lemur are now considered critically endangered), you’ll have to visit Madagascar either as tourist or even better as a volunteer so you can actually roll your sleaves up and get busy helping their cause. Check out a gap year programme such as ours, where you can work in the forests studying and monitoring them and helping to identify any local threats.

2. Golden Lion Tamarin

Golden lion tamarins get their name from the lion-like mane that surrounds their funny face. They live mostly in trees, and are typically found in Brazil’s coastal rainforests. When they spot a predator they give an alarm call, and even captive-bred golden lion tamarins make this sound if they see a bird overhead, showing how ingrained it is in their nature. A clever cute, rare animal!

But they are now critically endangered because of the ever-expanding logging, agriculture and industry destroying their forests. So, if you can, try and see some of these cute, hilarious looking animals before they are all gone, or at least help preserve their home.

3. Orang-utan

The word orang-utan actually means ‘person of the forest’ in the Malay language, which makes sense, as people share 96.4% of our genetic make-up with orang-utans (so not to call them cute would almost be an insult). These are my favourite of all in the category of cute, rare animals.

Orang-utans can now only be found in the wild in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra, and both species of orang-utan are now considered critically endangered. Unless more is done to help them, it is predicted that the Sumatran orang-utan will be the first Great Ape to become extinct.

As part of our Borneo trip, volunteers have the chance to visit the world-famous Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre, and it is places like this that are crucial to preserving the orang-utan population. It is more important than ever to help protect this rare species’ natural habitat.

4. Tree Kangaroo

Tree Kangaroos look a bit like a cross between a kangaroo and a lemur, and are part of the marsupial family. There are many species of tree kangaroo, but almost all of them are sadly under threat. Deforestation and poaching are mostly to blame, so conservation efforts focus on habitat preservation and anti-poaching movements.

They live in lowland mountainous rainforests in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and the far north of Queensland, Australia, but you’d be very lucky to see one of these cute, rare animals in the wild, but worth the try.

5. Sloth

Sloths became a bit of an internet sensation a few years ago, and we completely understand why – they are pretty awesome and have a very chilled way of life. They are tropical mammals that live in the forests of Central and South America, and spend most of their lives hanging from trees, because their long claws make walking on the ground difficult. They don’t even leave the trees to give birth. They spend most of their lives either sleeping or eating and are usually quite solitary animals. Sloths are so inactive that algae actually grow on their fur (which is what gives them their greenish tint and a form of camouflage). Cute, rare animals in camoflage!

Although not as rare as a lot of the other cute, rare animal species we’ve mentioned, they are hard to spot thanks to their home being high up in the trees. The best chance to see sloths in their natural habitats on one of our trips would be in Costa Rica, where you might see them hanging from the trees while you’re helping with forest conservation.

6. Dik-Dik

These cute little antelopes are found in the shrublands and savannahs of Eastern and southern Africa and usually only grow to be about 12-16 inches tall, so are smaller than most dogs. They get their name because when they are frightened they run in a zig-zag line at speeds of up to 26 miles per hour, while making a sound similar to ‘dik-dik’. They mate for life and spend their lives with just their ‘significant other’ rather than hanging around in packs. They even kick their children out at 7 months old! Pretty cute, rare animals!

The reason their numbers are dwindling is because their tiny leg and feet bones are used to make traditional jewellery, and their skin is often made into suede for gloves. Because of this and their small size and speed, it is rare to see them in the wild, but if you’re lucky you might get the chance to see some on our Namibia trip.

7. Binturong

Binturongs are also known as a ‘bearcats’, and are brilliant climbers that live in the dense, tropical rainforests, of South and Southeast Asia. They are rarely spotted in the wild, mostly because they live high in the trees and rarely come to the ground. They are also classed as vulnerable species of cute, rare animals because of their declining population, as a result of habitat destruction, hunting and the wildlife trade.

To mark their territory, they drag their tail along branches and foliage as they move, which leaves a scent that, to humans, smells a bit like buttered popcorn. So if you want to spot one of these cuddly-looking ‘bearcats’ in the wild, then that’s the smell to follow.

8. Vicuna

Vicuna’s are part of the llama family and are primarily found in the central Andes of South America, but Bolivia has the largest population of them. Vicunas were valued very highly by the Incas for their wool and only royalty were allowed to wear it. This is because they produce small amounts of very fine wool – which is very expensive because they can only be shorn every three years. The wool becomes very soft and warm when knitted together, and the only natural fibre softer than vicuna is silk. High class cute, rare animals!

They are still highly valued, and are the national animal of Peru and appear on the Peruvian coat of arms. They were declared endangered in the 1970s, when their numbers were incredibly low, but since then their numbers have risen substantially, but they still need to be conserved due to threats from poaching and habitat loss.

Although they look pretty similar, they’re smaller and more shy (and less prone to spitting), than their llama relatives, so we think they’re definitely cuter. Not to mention that they are just so very soft.

9. Tarsier

Tarsiers are small, nocturnal primates that weigh about 150g and look a bit like gremlins, thanks to their huge bug-eyes. They have the largest eyes relative to body size of any animal, as each of their eyes weighs about the same amount as their brain. They’re definitely on the border of being classed cute, rare animals, but we like them.

While they used to be more widespread, they are now quite rare and only found on the islands of Southeast Asia. All tarsiers are now considered vulnerable, and some are close to extinction. If their habitats are not preserved and managed better, they will become extinct in the not too distant future.

10. Red Panda

Red Pandas (my personal favourite) are found in the temperate forests of the Himalayas, including northern Burma, parts of China, Nepal, Tibet and India. They are slightly larger than a domestic cat, meaning they are dwarfed by their distant relation, the Giant Panda, and look more like racoons than bears. They spend most of their lives in trees, are only awake for an average 45% of the day and constantly look like they’re smiling at you.

They are classified as endangered and their population continues to decline because of habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching and lack of breeding. They are legally protected in most countries they’re found in and there are several conservation efforts in place to help preserve their numbers. Their shy nature and nocturnal habits mean they are hard to spot in the wild, but it would be pretty amazing to see one of these very cute animals in their natural habitat before they’re all gone.

Which one’s your favourite?

So those are our favourite cute, rare animals to find out in the wild. A lot of these can be found on one of our wildlife conservation programmes, but if you fancy your chances at spotting the rest then hopefully this has given you a few tips on the where and how.

If you’ve been lucky enough to already see any of these animals first hand then we’d love to hear about it and see any photos you managed to get.

Check out our gap year programs

We have award winning 'planet saving' programs across Africa, Asia, South and Central America.

Reducing plastic in our oceans, protecting turtles and saving the rhino is just the tip of the melting iceberg.

All experiences include a mix of projects and adventures, travelling with a team and, of course, are risk assessed.

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