Food Species Top the Latest Additions to The IUCN Red List

The IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia saw the release of the latest update to The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ in front of a global audience of protected area professionals, conservationists, government representatives, and business leaders. These leaders consistently agreed that survival of many species depends on the conscious interaction between our individual choices, effective government policy, and the essential support of people and businesses in the private sector.

Among the many species assessed for the latest update of the IUCN Red List, below are some of the most notable examples of how human appetites directly translate into increased threats and decreased  abundance for many species. Food is the most direct way that each of us interact with species and our search for and procurement of food has more drastic and lasting consequences on species survival than any other activity. For many of us, the journey of edible species starts and ends with exchanging money for food without much regard for how these choices may impact wild species. However, for many people in the world, food security is a daily concern that is not necessarily directly mediated by money but is more dependent on the local abundance of species and ecosystems that can be harvested.

In one of her several contributions to the World Leaders’ Dialogue on Food Security at the IUCN World Parks Congress, IUCN Patron of Nature and National Geographic Explorer in Residence, Dr. Sylvia Earle passionately explained that humans have become experts at extracting animal life from the oceans in ways that were unimaginable during her youth – a statement that is supported by many recent IUCN Red List species assessments that highlight the threatened status of popular fisheries species and the recent movement of the Pacific Bluefin Tuna (Thunnus orientalis) from the ‘Least Concern’ Red List category to ‘Vulnerable’, primarily because it is aggressively targeted for sushi and sashimi markets.

Pacific Bluefin Tuna (Thunnus orientalis). Photo Credit Randy Wilder, Monterey Bay Aquarium

Additionally, the Chinese Pufferfish (Takifugu chinensis) has entered the IUCN Red List as ‘Critically Endangered’. Its global population is estimated to have declined by a shocking 99.99% over the past 40 years due to over-exploitation as a popular food fish in Japan. Dr. Earle also provided one of the most elegant explanations (at 26:00 minutes) of how eating species to extinction is, for most people, an avoidable choice that is based not on survival but on the enjoyment of luxury foods that have historically never been a part of most human diets but which are now ubiquitously available ( i.e. such as shrimp and Patagonian toothfish, also known as Chilean sea bass).

To supply people with the animals and animal products they desire, international and regional networks trade in wild species, much of which is largely sustainable, regulated and entirely legal and responsible. However, in parallel to this trade is the unsustainable or illegal trade in wildlife products that threatens entire branches on the tree of life. In this Red List update, the Chinese cobra (Naja atra) joins a large number of other unsustainably harvested reptile species whose populations are quickly dwindling as appetites increase. Although listed as a species that requires special protection under the Convention for the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES Appendix 2) the Chinese cobra population has declined by 30–50% over the past 20 years and it has entered the IUCN Red List as ‘Vulnerable’. Chinese Cobras are in fact among the top animal species exported from mainland China to Hong Kong for the food market.

Chinese cobra (Naja atra). Photo Courtesy of Skink Chen

While the establishment and sound management of protected areas, alongside effective measures to prevent over-exploitation can ensure the persistence of some threatened species, the latest update to the IUCN Red List provides an important example of the necessity of urgent action by individuals, governments and business leaders in conserving species confronted by unsustainable consumption and trade. Furthermore, the majority of threatened species do not fully reside within protected areas and it is the task of people who manage, interact with, and fund entire landscapes and seascapes to meaningfully integrate the conservation of species into everyday thought and decisions to make these areas functional for both people and species.

As you can see from several of the species in this update of the IUCN Red List, and the updates that have preceded it, the relationship with our food, its sources, and the space it requires to grow provides one of the most intimate and important considerations that each of us can make to ensure the prosperity and persistence of other species. As human populations grow over the next century and place increased pressure on wild species, their survival will not only depend on the objective and scientific assessments of the IUCN Red List to provide information required by governments, businesses and society to save species,  but it will also depend upon the weight of our wallets, the thought behind our decisions, and the balance of our spoons.

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Craig R. Beatty, IUCN



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.