South Korea is surrounded by water on three sides and has various climate zones and high precipitation. These conditions lead to a diversity of wildlife. The diverse wildlife of South Korea includes more than 18,000 species of animals. Though due to urbanization, many of them are on the verge of extinction. Thanks to the government’s and conservationist’s efforts that the country is still home to a vast number of majestic wild animals.
The ten wild animals native to South Korea described here include large mammals like leopard and whale to a small hare.
Amur Leopard or Siberian Tiger is South Korea’s official national animal. They are one of the world’s rarest big cats, and its scientific name is Panthera tigris altaica, while other nickname names are Korean tiger, Manchurian tiger, and Ussurian tiger. This originated in Russia and migrated through China and lives dense forest and mountainous regions
Amur Leopard has distinct black stripes flanking reddish-orange and white fur. They are historically the largest cat in the world and are in the list of endangered wildlife driven to near-critical extinction. Seoul Zoo is making efforts for the conservation of Korean leopards.
Common Minke Whale
This grayish purple and black whale is the second smallest whale in the world, about 7-8 m in length. You can find it in the waters surrounding the coasts of South Korea. The common Minke whale is the primary source of whale meat in meat markets, and its population has diminished due to illegal hunting for the meat.
They generally eat small fish, eels, and other water animals. However, Killer whales are known to prey on Minke whales. Their lifespan is 40-50 years, and they are generally in small family groups of two-three.
The Wild Boar is a dark coarse furred animal that is big, strong, and fast and can potentially harm humans. They roam freely in the mountainsides and, due to their overpopulation, sometimes invade into cities and rampage through the streets in search of food. You can see wild boars venturing into busy areas.
The wild boars are pest animals and you can see them lurking in South Korea’s topography. Wild boars find their food in the wooded areas they inhabit and from streams of water, like bird eggs, rodents, mushrooms, fishes, etc.
The water deer is a unique small deer native to China and Korea. The South Korean water deer subspecies has the scientific name Hydropotes inermis argyropus. It has a small frame with golden brown fur and white underbellies. It is colloquially nicknamed as vampire deer due to prominent downward-pointing canine teeth coming out from the mouth as tusks, unlike other deer.
Water deer are indigenous to the lower reaches of mountains, swamps, and grasslands alongside rivers. In South Korea, they are in larger numbers since the demilitarized zone has provided a protected habitat for them. Water deer are also proficient swimmers. Their favorite foods are aquatic vegetation like weeds, grass, fruits, and more. Korean water deer has been designated as “harmful wildlife” due to its destructive nature and has been found destroying property and farms.
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The Korean goral or long-tailed goral (scientific name: Naemorhedus caudatus) is a goat-like antelope with a long, bushy tail, light grayish brown body, and a white patch on the throat. These reside in rocky areas or caves which other animals cannot access easily.
You can find them in mountain regions mainly. Gorals eat a wide range of grass, wild fruits, leaves, shoots, buds, moss, and acorns.
The goral population was only about 40 animals in 1982 in South Korea and it has increased to around 700-800 now, due to conservation efforts. The South Korean government designated N. caudatus as an Endangered Species in 1997.
Siberian Musk Deer
The Siberian musk deer has elongated canines in both males and females. It is a small deer with adaptations that give it an ability to walk through deep snow. They can also run extraordinarily fast to save themselves from predators. Their pelage is dark brown with many dorsal yellow spots. Musk deer differ sharply from other deer species.
Musk deer prefer grass, soft leaves, buds, mushrooms, and bark of trees. These deer can climb on inclined trunks up to 3-4 m above ground when feeding. In 1997, the Ministry of Environment added the Siberian musk deer to the South Korean Endangered Species list.
The Lynx is another native cat to South Korea, like a tiger but much smaller. This solitary cat is has a coat cover with beautiful, sand brown with dark brown spots, thick fur. The fur is a barrier against harsh temperatures and keeps them warm during frosty winters.
You can find these animals in the woods of South Korea and in montane forests in the Korean DMZ. They are night-hunting, stealthy cats and you will rarely see them in the forests.
Asian Black Bear
The well-built Asian Black Bear is beautiful due to its dark black fur and ‘moon’ or ‘V’ shaped white patch on its chest. You can find this slender, 300 pounds tree-dweller, in forests, is also known as a ‘moon bear.’ The Asian Black Bear feeds on eggs, insects, bees, termites, along with fruits, nuts, and different grasses.
South Korea is making significant efforts to conserve the beautiful Black Bear, one of the most endangered mammals, and has been successful in breeding with help from conservationists. Cubs of the species imported from other countries are released into Jirisan National Park, the largest mountain national park in Korea.
Cranes: Red-Crowned and White-Naped
These two large species of crane, Red-Crowned and White-Naped, are native to South Korea. Each of them has unique looks. The red-crowned one is 1.2 m to 1.5 m tall, has a red patch on its head, a bright white body with vivid black wing tips and neck. You can find the red-crowned crane within wetlands and along rivers.
The white-naped crane has mostly white, silver, dark grey and little bits of black throughout with pinkish legs and looks like the red-crowned crane. They inhabit grassy marshes, wet meadows, and reed beds in broad river valleys. You can find them in the Demilitarized Zone of South and North Korea.
The crane is a symbol for luck in Korean culture, and these two are now in the list of endangered wildlife.
The hare species that is only inhabiting South Korea, Korean Hare, is considerably heavier with a darker dorsal pelage of overall gray fur. The tip of hairs on the chest and tail are a pinkish-gray, and a white forehead spot is common in most of these hares.
Korean hares once were common, but due to excessive hunting and habitat destruction by development, their populations have decreased significantly. The South Korean government removed it as a game species in 2005 because of declining populations, and the Ministry of Environment listed Korean hare as a candidate for Endangered Species in 2018.