Posted 16 June 2011, by Jeremy Hance, Mongabay, mongabay.com
The past twelve months have seen 914 species added to the threatened list by the world’s authority of species endangerment, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List. Over 19,000 species are now classified in one of three threatened categories, i.e. Vulnerable, Endangered, and Critically Endangered, a jump of 8,219 species since 2000. Species are added to the threatened list for a variety of reasons: for many this year was the first time they were evaluated, for others new information was discovered about their plight, and for some their situation in the wild simply deteriorated. While scientists have described nearly 2 million species, the IUCN Red List has evaluated only around 3 percent of these.
“The key to halting the extinction crisis is to target efforts towards eradicating the major threats faced by species and their environment; only then can their future be secured,” explains Simon Stuart, Chair of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission in a press release. “The IUCN Red List acts as a gateway to such efforts, by providing decision makers with a goldmine of information not only on the current status of the species, but also on existing threats and the conservation actions required.”
Nineteen species of amphibians were added to the list this year, and a stunning eight of these were listed as Critically Endangered, including a yellow-and-orange harlequin toad (Atelopus patazensis) from Peru and a dwarf salamander (Dendrotriton chujorum) from Guatemala. According to the Red List, amphibians are among the world’s most threatened groups: 41 percent of the world’s frogs and salamanders are currently facing extinction. Habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, and a lethal plague, known as chytridiomycosis, have decimated amphibian populations worldwide. The IUCN Red List has evaluated 93 percent of the world’s nearly 7,000 amphibians. However, a recent study predicted that a further 3,000 amphibians likely still remain unknown to scientists.
This year was the first time that New Caledonia’s endemic reptiles were evaluated. For those species where there was sufficient data to make a determination, 67 percent were threatened with extinction. The forests of New Caledonia—incredibly rich in species found no-where else—were recently listed by Conservation International as the world’s 2nd most threatened forest biodiversity hot spot, since only 5 percent of the islands’ forests remain. Deforestation, widespread nickel mining, and introduced species, have decimated the islands’ unique residents.
The IUCN Red List also assessed all 248 lobster species this year. Unfortunately over a third (35 percent) were listed as Data Deficient, meaning there was simply not enough information on the species to determine its status.
On the Positive Side
This year’s update was not entirely gloomy. One bright spot was the movement of the Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx) from Endangered to Vulnerable. The Arabian oryx’s story is an amazing one of a species coming back from extinction—literally—to run free again.
Hunting killed off the Arabian oryx, with the last wild individual shot dead in 1972. However, a captive conservation program, which started with only 9 animals, managed to save the species from complete oblivion. Once a secure population was created in captivity, animals were released back into the wild. Today, the wild population is 1,000 animals. This is the first time a species has made it all the way from being listed as Extinct in the Wild to Vulnerable.
“Conservation does work and species can recover, as shown in the case of the Arabian Oryx. Using data from the IUCN Red List, an opportunity exists for governments and society to guide conservation programmes to put the brakes on species extinctions,” said Julia Marton-Lefèvre, IUCN’s Director General, in a press release.
Gaps in the Red List
The IUCN Red List’s assessments are heavily weighted toward more well-known species whose statuses are easier to determine. For example, while the Red List has only assessed 3 percent of the world’s described species, it has assessed 100 percent of the world’s birds and mammals, and 93 percent of the world’s amphibians.
Two other groups of vertebrates—reptiles and fish—have not had such a complete assessment. Only 32 percent of the world’s known reptiles have been assessed, and 29 percent of the world’s fish.
However, non-vertebrates are even more lacking in assessment. In all, only 1 percent of the world’s invertebrates have been assessed: from 39 percent of the world’s corals to 0.03 percent of the world’s spiders. Researchers have assessed over 3,000 insects, the most numerous life forms described on Earth, but this is only 0.3 percent of the world’s known insects.
Plants fare slightly better. In total 5 percent of the world’s described plants have been assessed by the IUCN Red List, but very few algae or mosses.
Fungi are the least assessed of all: there are over 30,000 known mushrooms, but only one has been assessed by the Red List.
The reason for the gaps are twofold. On the one hand the lesser-known the species the more difficult it is to assess. On the other hand, is the practical lack of funding. Last year researchers said it would take $60 million dollars to triple the number of species now assessed, thereby creating a true ‘barometer of biodiversity’. Such funding would allow researchers to assess an additional 35,000 vertebrates, 38,000 invertebrates, 25,000 plants, and 14,500 fungi and other species. While $60 million may sound like a lot, it’s just over 1 percent of how much the US continues to spend on subsidies for big oil companies.
“It is extremely important that we keep pushing forward with surveys of little-known species, as without adequate data, we cannot determine their risk of extinction and therefore cannot develop or implement effective conservation actions which could prevent the species from disappearing altogether,” explains Jane Smart, Director, IUCN’s Global Species Program.
Currently, much of the work for the IUCN Red List is done by volunteers, given the dearth of funding.
Current estimations from the IUCN Red List indicate that extinction rates are currently happening 100-1,000 times more than the natural rate as determined by fossils. Many scientists believe we heading into a period of mass extinction—the sixth on Earth—only this time it is due wholly to one species’ activities. From deforestation to climate change, pollution to wildlife consumption, invasive species to habitat destruction, humans are driving massive changes to the world’s biodiversity.