With an initial list of just 10 — including a venomous shrew-like creature, an egg-laying mammal and the world’s smallest bat — the programme will give last-ditch conservation aid where there has been little or none to date.
Zoological Society of London scientist Jonathan Baillie said: “We are focussing on EDGE species — that means they are Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered.
“These are one-of-a-kind species. If they are lost there is nothing similar to them left on the planet. It would be a bit like the art world losing the Mona Lisa — they are simply irreplaceable.”
Not only are the target species unique, the project itself is breaking ground by using the internet to highlight threatened creatures and encourage the public to sponsor conservation.
“This is appealing to the general public to take action to reverse the decline of these amazing species,” Mr Baillie said.
Global warming and human destruction of habitats are cited as root causes of the problem and Mr Baillie said the top creature on the agenda, the Yangtze River dolphin, may already have disappeared
Listed on the website www.zsl.org/edge as being down to just 13 individuals, scientists visiting the area recently had not seen any.
“This really highlights the importance of acting quickly,” Mr Baillie said.
EDGE species include the rather more iconic — and recognisable — elephants and pandas, but the London Zoo project is also aiming far smaller.
The list includes the bumblebee bat, the Hispaniolan solenodon and the golden-rumped elephant shrew, but Mr Baillie hopes to save far more.
“Our goal is to ensure that over the next five years there are conservation measures in place for the top 100 species. We have 10 species we are focussing on this year but that will change over time.”