The biodiversity of life on Earth is disappearing faster than at any time in human history. Among the many people sounding the alarm of our disappearing natural history the IUCN Red List is the instrument that is used to measure biodiversity loss and the species that are most at risk of extinction. People like Elizabeth Kolbert and many others contend that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event and echos of her sentiments can be heard throughout conservation, environmental, and social media circles in every language on earth.
The conservation of biodiversity has been placed as a global priority in several international conventions and agreements and it is clear that healthy and diverse ecosystems support people in many interacting ways. The conservation and development community are primed to incorporate into this knowledge, much of which has been developed through the interdisciplinary cooperation between global and local organizations and people, into development plans that include species and ecosystems as critical components of conservation strategies.
In each of these decisions and processes, the IUCN Red List is an indispensable source of information on species natural history, conservation status and how these are connected to human livelihoods. The information contained within the IUCN Red List is used by governments, non-governmental organizations, charitable organizations, educational institutions, the private sector, land managers, and private individuals. From this information, the IUCN Red List helps guide decision-making processes and the policies that result to account for and conserve biodiversity throughout the world.
The IUCN Red List has currently assessed about 74,000 species. This may seem like a large number, but when compared against the global extent of species that have been discovered and described (listed as 1.3 million in the encyclopedia of life), this figure only represents about 5% of species that have names.
What’s clear is that what we know about the extent biodiversity on Earth is very little when compared with the true number of species out there. Scientists estimate that 80% of the species on Earth have not yet been discovered and for those that have been discovered the IUCN Red List has, in 50 years been able to comprehensively assess all mammals, birds, amphibians, sharks, conifers, and reef-building corals.
Although the IUCN Red List is already important, as you may imagine, comprehensive conservation of biodiversity is challenging when such a small proportion of biodiversity has been assessed. In order to make the IUCN Red List a more comprehensive indicator of the status of global biodiversity, IUCN has initiated an accelerated process to increase the number of species assessed by the Red List to 160,000 by 2020. We believe that this figure is an achievable goal for a process that requires the assessment of 86,000 additional species.
Generally, the conservation assessment of a species costs roughly $250 USD for each species, and is usually completed in distinct taxonomic units. For instance, the IUCN Species Programme is currently in the process of a global assessment of reptile species.
Over the coming years, we hope to foster global support to make the IUCN Red List a more complete barometer of life that can assist the individuals and institutions of the world in including biodiversity in each decision-making process from local land use decisions to national and global policies.
If you would like to learn more about this process, about the history of the IUCN Red List, and about how you can be a part of the solution to biodiversity loss, please visit THE IUCN RED LIST 50th ANNIVERSARY or click below to sign our species pledge
Craig R. Beatty