Celebrating 50 Years of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™

People are fascinated by scarce plants, fungi and animals, and have been documenting the rarity of species for a long time. Following the “gold rush” of the enlightenment era, when taxonomists and collectors were racing to discover new species in exotic and undescribed corners of the world, science settled down to not just discover species, but describe how they fit into the ecosystems of our planet and our cultures.

The Okapi (Okapia johnstoni) is the closest living relative to the giraffe. It is regionally extinct in Uganda and now only exists in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was declared an endangered species in 2013. Photograph by Jeff McFarland

One of the first questions people ask when they learn about the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is “What’s on the top of the list?” This question can’t be easily answered as the IUCN Red List is not a ranking of species, but an assessment of the risk of extinction facing a species. It is a rich anthology of dynamic information on the threats to species, their ecological requirements, habitats and locations, and advice on conservation actions that can be taken to reduce or prevent extinction. It is the internationally recognized standard for scientific knowledge on species and it has been guiding policy and bare-knuckle conservation for 50 years.

The IUCN Red List started as a handful of index cards in the 1950s that were used to organize an increasing body of information on vanishing mammals and birds. However, as information mounted over the next decade this stack of cards found itself transformed into a dynamic two-volume set of data sheets in red binders. As scientists received new information about species, the data in the binders was updated.

Graphic courtesy IUCN

In 1964 these data sets were compiled and published, making the information publicly available for the first time and officially beginning the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Today the IUCN Red List is compiled and produced by the IUCN Species Programme (one of many IUCN initiatives) that works in close partnership with the Species Survival Commission, our IUCN Red List Partner organizations, and species experts from universities, museums, research institutions, and non-governmental organizations.

As we continue to gather more information about the species on this planet, we are able to assess the conservation status of more species. There are now over 71,000 species on the IUCN Red List and more than 20,000 are threatened with extinction. A growing number of species groups have been assessed. From these assessments we learned that 63 percent of cycads, 41 percent of amphibians, 33 percent of reef-building corals, 30 percent of Conifers, 25 percent of mammals, and 13 percent of birds are threatened with extinction.

The IUCN Red List informs decision-making, laws, and conventions across all political scales and influences the resources allocated to conservation effort. It measures the trends of extinction and the impacts of biodiversity loss to better plan and advise conservation action. It also provides the world with a platform for awareness and education for both the general public and scientific researchers. The IUCN Red List is heavily cited in scientific publications and consistently used to inform local, regional, and global conservation. It is also a catalyst for human interest in species—when people get word that a species is endangered, there tends to be an increase in interest.

In 2014 we celebrate 50 years of species conservation and the more than 8,000 experts who roll up their sleeves and wade through the muck of conservation practice and science to provide all of us with the information we need to make informed decisions about life on this planet.

On-the-ground science and conservation has been at the core of IUCN for over 50 years.
On-the-ground science and conservation has been at the core of IUCN for over 50 years. Photograph by Craig Beatty

Over the remainder of 2014 we will bring you stories about species, the people who save species and the process and challenges we face to achieve one of the most important tasks we have been given—caring for nature and ourselves.

Search for information on a species at iucnredlist.org and follow us Facebook and @amazingspecies.

Also, if you happen to be in the Southern California area this weekend, stop by the G2 Gallery in Venice to see an exhibit titled “On the Brink.” It heavily features photography, sculpture, and other mixed media surrounding IUCN Red List species. There will be a special reception on Saturday April 26th with IUCN Director General, Julia Marton-Lefèvre. Images of the exhibit, a collaboration between IUCN and the G2 Gallery, are below.

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Photo courtesy G2 Gallery


Changing Planet

Meet the Author
The International Union for Conservation of Nature is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization made up of more than 1,000 organizations, as well as 10,000 individual scientists and experts working on conservation around the globe. Perhaps we are best known for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which is the global standard for species science and conservation information and the connection to human livelihoods and is celebrating 50 years of conservation action in 2014.