On Top of their Game: Olympic Animals

The Olympics is all about recognising and honouring man's sporting prowess - running, jumping, swimming, diving and doing just about everything else. Yet there are other games that take place far from the shiny new stadiums and flag-waving crowds.
Welcome to the Animal Olympics, where species compete daily in the wild to thrive and survive.

Different species have adapted different athletic abilities to succeed in their respective environments, from running fast to chase prey to swimming great distances in search of food and safety.

Animals are amazing athletes and their performances in the wild are of often above and beyond Olympic caliber.

And the medals go to the...

Cheetah for sprinting

 / ©: WWF-Canon / Martin harvey
Cheetah
© WWF-Canon / Martin harvey
The cheetah is the world’s fastest land mammal, and the most unique and specialized member of the cat family.

Aerodynamically built for speed, it can achieve speeds of up to 112kph (70mph). These nimble cats can make swift, sudden turns in pursuit of prey like gazelle and young wildebeest.

With approximately 10,000 left in the wild, the cheetah is endangered throughout its range in southern and eastern Africa due to habitat loss, reduced prey and poaching.

Will they be fast enough in the race for survival?

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Tiger for high jumping

 / ©: WWF-Canon / Vladimir FILONOV
Siberian tiger
© WWF-Canon / Vladimir FILONOV
Tigers can leap as high as 5m (16ft) and as far as 9-10m (30-33ft), making them one of the highest jumping mammals.

The tiger, largest of all cats, is one of the most charismatic and evocative species on Earth; it is also one of the most threatened. Only about 4,000 remain in the wild, most in isolated pockets spread across increasingly fragmented forests stretching from India to south-eastern China and from the Russian Far East to Sumatra, Indonesia.

Poached for its skin and body parts, the world has lost 3 of the 9 tiger subspecies in the past century - the Bali, Caspian and Javan tigers have all become extinct.

Can the remaining subspecies jump away from the brink of extinction?

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Leatherback turtle for diving

 / ©: WWF-Canon / Ronald PETOCZ
Leatherback Turtle
© WWF-Canon / Ronald PETOCZ
Scientists have recorded leatherback turtles descending as deep as 1,230m - the deepest dive ever recorded for a reptile.

They are also excellent swimmers, finding their way as far north as Alaska and as far south as Africa's Cape of Good Hope.

Like other marine turtles species, leatherbacks are threatened by poaching for meat and egg collection, marine pollution and being caught accidentally in fishing nets. A combination of these threats has caused the world’s largest marine species to be listed as critically endangered.

The leatherback may have to dive a little deeper to escape detection.

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Polar bear for swimming

 / ©: WWF-Canon / Terry Domico
Polar Bear swimming under water
© WWF-Canon / Terry Domico
Polar bears are excellent swimmers and can sustain a pace of 10kph (6.2mph) in cold icy waters by using their front paws like oars while their hind legs are held flat like a rudder.

They can swim for several hours at a time over long distances - some have been tracked swimming continuously for 100km (62 miles) - and can stay under water for as long as 2 minutes.

Its Latin name, Ursus maritimus, means “sea bear”, reflecting the fact that the species spends much of its life in and around water, and on offshore pack ice where they like to hunt.

Melting sea ice as a result of climate change, however, poses a severe threat to the polar bear’s survival, a threat that it may not be able to swim its way out of so easily.

Scientists believe polar bears may disappear in the wild within 100 years if global warming continues unabated.

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African elephant for weightlifting

 / ©: WWF-Canon / Martin Harvey
African elephant charging.
© WWF-Canon / Martin Harvey
No land animal on Earth can lift as much weight as the African elephant, which can pick up a one-tonne weight with its trunk.

When not showing off their physical prowess, they actually use their versatile trunk, an extension of the upper lip and nose, for communication and handling objects including food.

The African elephant, the world’s largest terrestrial mammal, continues to roam the continent, but remain under threat from poaching and habitat loss. Although poaching elephants for their ivory has declined since a 1989 ivory ban, it remains a widespread problem, particularly in west and central Africa.

As strong as they are, elephants still need additional protection from the illegal ivory trade.

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Rhinoceros for fencing

 / ©: WWF-Canon / Martin HARVEY
African black rhinoceros
© WWF-Canon / Martin HARVEY
Rhinos use their horns to spar with each other, defend themselves and their young against predators, and to dig for water and forage for food.

For humans, the rhino horn is a prized ingredient in traditional Asian medicines and valued for dagger handles in the Middle East. As a result, poaching has been responsible for a serious decline in many Asian and African rhino populations.

Thanks to vigorous conservation and anti-poaching efforts, some rhino populations are now stable or increasing.

Can the rhino’s thick armoured skin and short-horned “saber” foil off continued attempts on their lives?

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Humpback whale for gymnastics

 / ©:  	IFAW / C. Carlson
Humpback whale
© IFAW / C. Carlson
Despite their huge size, humpback whales are quite acrobatic, often found leaping out of the sea and making a big splash when they hit the water.

Sometimes a twist is involved in the jump, a sideways motion or other gymnastic moves.

They also compete well in the swimming category, making extensive seasonal migrations between high-latitude summer feeding grounds and low-latitude wintering grounds.

Like many whale species, humpbacks populations were decimated by decades of unsustainable hunting.

An international moratorium on all commercial whaling 1986 has helped numbers recover but they still threatened by pollution, ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear.

More information:

Giant panda for eating!

 / ©: WWF-Canon / Martin HARVEY
Giant Panda
© WWF-Canon / Martin HARVEY
Well, this isn’t really an Olympic event but as the giant panda is one of the official mascots of the Beijing Games and a cultural icon in China, no list would be complete without the universally loved species.

While not breaking any records for speed or climbing, the panda can consume an impressive 12-38kg of bamboo a day to meet its energy requirements.

But, destruction of its bamboo forests for timber and agriculture is threatening the endangered species.

Conservation solutions by China and WWF, such as creating and expanding nature reserves and restoring panda habitat, are working but more work needs to be done to save this iconic species.

More information:

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