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Wildlife Crisis Worse Than Economic Crisis, IUCN Says

Wildlife is under serious threat across the planet, despite the commitment by world leaders to reverse the trend of biodiversity loss by 2010, according to a detailed analysis of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Asian Wild Ass (Equus hemionus). Threat category Endangered Photo © Jean-Christophe Vié The IUCN assessment,...

Wildlife is under serious threat across the planet, despite the commitment by world leaders to reverse the trend of biodiversity loss by 2010, according to a detailed analysis of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.


Asian Wild Ass (Equus hemionus). Threat category Endangered

Photo © Jean-Christophe Vié

The IUCN assessment, which is published every four years, has been released just before the deadline governments set themselves to evaluate how successful they were in achieving the 2010 target to reduce biodiversity loss.

Deadline will not be met

The IUCN report, “Wildlife in a Changing World,” shows the 2010 target will not be met, the organization said in a statement today.


“When governments take action to reduce biodiversity loss there are some conservation successes, but we are still a long way from reversing the trend,” says Jean-Christophe Vié, deputy head of IUCN’s Species Program and senior editor of the publication.

“It’s time to recognize that nature is the largest company on Earth working for the benefit of 100 percent of humankind–and it’s doing it for free.

“Governments should put as much effort, if not more, into saving nature as they do into saving economic and financial sectors.”

IUCN is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental network. Based in Switzerland, it is a democratic membership union with more than 1,000 government and NGO member organizations, and almost 11,000 volunteer scientists in more than 160 countries.

Its report analyzes 44,838 species on the IUCN Red List and presents results by groups of species, geographical regions, and different habitats, such as marine, freshwater and terrestrial.

The Red List is the most comprehensive information source on the global conservation status of species. It is based on an objective system of assessing the risk of extinction for a species. Species listed as Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable are collectively described as threatened.     

IUCN Red List logo.png

“A minimum of 16,928 species are threatened with extinction.”


The updated list shows 869 species are Extinct or Extinct in the Wild, and this figure rises to 1,159 if the 290 Critically Endangered species tagged as Possibly Extinct are included, IUCN said.

“Overall, a minimum of 16,928 species are threatened with extinction.”

Considering that only 2.7 percent of the 1.8 million described species have been analyzed, this number is a gross underestimate, IUCN added. “But it does provide a useful snapshot of what is happening to all forms of life on Earth.”


Shoebill (Balaeniceps rex). Threat category Vulnerable  (Photo © Jean-Christophe Vié)

An increased number of freshwater species have now been assessed, giving a better picture of the dire situation they face, IUCN said.

“In Europe, for example, 38 percent of all fishes are threatened and 28 percent in Eastern Africa. The high degree of connectivity in freshwater systems, allowing pollution or invasive species to spread rapidly, and the development of water resources with scant regard for the species that live in them, are behind the high level of threat.”


Hippo (Hippopotamus amphibious). Threat category Vulnerable. (Photo © Jean-Christophe Vié)

In the oceans, the picture is similarly bleak

“The report shows that a broad range of marine species are experiencing potentially irreversible loss due to over-fishing, climate change, invasive species, coastal development and pollution.

“At least 17 percent of the 1,045 shark and ray species, 12.4 percent of groupers and six of the seven marine turtle species are threatened with extinction. Most noticeably, 27 percent of the 845 species of reef building corals are threatened, 20 percent are Near Threatened and there is not enough data for 17 percent to be assessed.

“Marine birds are much more threatened that terrestrial ones with 27.5 percent in danger of extinction, compared with 11.8 percent of terrestrial birds.”


Black-and-White Ruffed Lemur (Varecia variegate). Threat category Critically Endangered. (Photo © Jean-Christophe Vié)

“Think of fisheries without fishes, logging without trees, tourism without coral reefs or other wildlife, crops without pollinators,” Vié said..

“Imagine the damage to our economies and societies if they were lost.

“All the plants and animals that make up Earth’s amazing wildlife have a specific role and contribute to essentials like food, medicine, oxygen, pure water, crop pollination, carbon storage and soil fertilization. Economies are utterly dependent on species diversity. We need them all, in large numbers. We quite literally cannot afford to lose them.”

Habitat destruction is the main threat worldwide

The report shows nearly one third of amphibians, more than one in eight birds and nearly a quarter of mammals are threatened with extinction. For some plant groups, such as conifers and cycads, the situation is even more serious, with 28 percent and 52 percent threatened respectively. For all these groups, habitat destruction, through agriculture, logging and development, is the main threat and occurs worldwide.


Magellanic Penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus). Threat category Near Threatened (Photo © Jean-Christophe Vié)

In the case of amphibians, the fungal disease chytridiomycosis is seriously affecting an increasing number of species, complicating conservation efforts.

For birds, the highest number of threatened species is found in Brazil and Indonesia, but the highest proportion of threatened or extinct birds is found on oceanic islands, according to the report.

Invasive species and hunting are the main threats. For mammals, unsustainable hunting is the greatest threat after habitat loss. This is having a major impact in Asia, where deforestation is also occurring at a very rapid rate.

“The report makes for depressing reading,” says Craig Hilton Taylor, Manager of the IUCN Red List Unit and co-editor. “It tells us that the extinction crisis is as bad, or even worse, than we believed. But it also shows the trends these species are following and is therefore an essential part of decision-making processes. In the run-up to 2010, the global community should use this report wisely to address the situation.”

It’s not all bad news …

Species can recover with concerted conservation efforts, the IUCN says.

In 2008, 37 improvements in status were recorded for mammals. An estimated 16 bird species avoided extinction over the last 15 years due to conservation programs.

“Conservation does work, but to mitigate the extinction crisis much more needs to be done, and quickly,” IUCN says.

“Conservationists are often considered as alarmists but we need to continue to alert decision-makers to the risk of inaction and the need to give up short term political strategies solely based on economic results,” says Jean-Christophe Vié, deputy head of IUCN’s Species Program.

“As shown by the economic and financial crisis, people who raise warning flags should be listened to. Wildlife needs an increased level of attention and our society needs to undertake major changes to safeguard its own future.”

Climate change is not currently the main threat to wildlife, but this may soon change, according to the report.

After examining the biological characteristics of 17,000 species of birds, amphibians and reef building corals, the report found that a significant proportion of species that are currently not threatened with extinction are susceptible to climate change. This includes 30 percent of non-threatened birds, 51 percent of non-threatened corals and 41 percent of non-threatened amphibians, which all have traits that make them susceptible to climate change.


The Golden Mantella (Mantella aurantiaca). Threat category Critically Endangered (Photo © Jean-Christophe Vié)

Red List Indices make it possible to track trends of extinction risk in groups of species, IUCN said. “New indices have been calculated and provide some interesting results. Birds, mammals, amphibians and corals all show a continuing deterioration, with a particularly rapid decline for corals.”

Species used for food and medicine more threatened

Red List Indices have also been calculated for amphibian, mammal and bird species used for food and medicine.

“The results show that bird and mammal species used for food and medicine are much more threatened. The diminishing availability of these resources has an impact on the health and well-being of the people who depend on them directly.

“The IUCN Red List provides a window on many of the major global issues of our day, including climate change, loss of freshwater ecosystems and over-fishing,” says Simon Stuart, Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission and co-editor. “Unless we address the fundamental causes of unsustainability on our planet, the lofty of goals of governments to reduce extinction rates will count for nothing.”


Southern Elephant Seal (Mirounga leonine). Threat category Least Concern (Photo © Jean-Christophe Vié)

To read the full report, “Wildlife in a Changing World – an analysis of the 2008 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species,” please click here:

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