IUCN - Another leap towards the Barometer of Life

Another leap towards the Barometer of Life

10 November 2011 | News story

The latest update of The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ illustrates the efforts undertaken by IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and its partners to expand the number and diversity of species assessed, improving the quality of information in order to obtain a better picture of the state of biodiversity. With now more than 61,900 species reviewed, another big step forward has been made toward developing the IUCN Red List into a true ‘Barometer of Life,’ as called for by leading experts in the magazine Science in 2010.

 “This update offers both good and bad news on the status of many species around the world,” says Jane Smart, Director, IUCN Global Species Programme. “We have the knowledge that conservation works if executed in a timely manner, yet, without strong political will in combination with targeted efforts and resources, the wonders of nature and the services it provides can be lost forever.”

Despite the action of conservation programmes, 25% of mammals are at risk of extinction. For example, the reassessments of several Rhinoceros species show that the subspecies of the Black Rhino in western Africa, the Western Black Rhino (Diceros bicornis longipes) has officially been declared Extinct. The subspecies of the White Rhino in central Africa, the Northern White Rhino (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) is currently teetering on the brink of extinction and has been listed as Possibly Extinct in the Wild. The Javan Rhino (Rhinoceros sondaicus) is also making its last stand, as the subspecies Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus is probably Extinct, following the poaching of what is thought to be the last animal in Viet Nam in 2010. Although this is not the end of the Javan Rhino, it does reduce the species to a single, tiny, declining population on Java. A lack of political support and will power for conservation efforts in many rhino habitats, international organized crime groups targeting rhinos and increasing illegal demand for rhino horns and commercial poaching are the main threats faced by rhinos.

“Human beings are stewards of the earth and we are responsible for protecting the species that share our environment,” says Simon Stuart, Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission. “In the case of both the Western Black Rhino and the Northern White Rhino the situation could have had very different results if the suggested conservation measures had been implemented. These measures must be strengthened now, specifically managing habitats in order to improve breeding performance, preventing other rhinos from fading into extinction.”

Several conservation successes have already been achieved including the Southern White Rhino subspecies (Ceratotherium simum simum), which has increased from a population of less than 100 at the end of the 19th century, to an estimated wild population of over 20,000. The Przewalski’s Horse (Equus ferus) is another success story, improving its status from Critically Endangered to Endangered. Originally, it was listed as Extinct in the Wild in 1996, but thanks to a captive breeding programme and a successful reintroduction programme, the population is now estimated at more than 300.

Reptiles make up a significant component of biodiversity, particularly in dryland habitats and on islands around the world. In recent years, many more reptile species have been assessed including most of those found in Madagascar. The current Red List reveals that an alarming 40% of Madagascar’s terrestrial reptiles are threatened. The 22 Madagascan species currently identified as Critically Endangered, which include chameleons, geckoes, skinks and snakes, are now a conservation challenge. This new information helps inform biodiversity planning and allows for an evaluation of the protection that protected areas in Madagascar offer reptiles. Encouragingly, there are new conservation areas being designated in Madagascar that will help conserve a significant proportion of Critically Endangered species, such as Tarzan’s Chameleon (Calumma tarzan), the Bizarre-nosed Chameleon (Calumma hafahafa) and the Limbless Skink (Paracontias fasika). Because of their IUCN Red List status, species which have traditionally been overlooked in conservation efforts, such as the Endangered geckos Paroedura masobe and Uroplatus pietschmanni will now be featured more prominently in future plans.

Plants are an essential resource for human well-being and are a critical component for wildlife habitats, yet they are still underrepresented on the IUCN Red List. Current work underway to increase knowledge includes a review of all Conifers. The results so far uncover some disturbing trends. The Chinese Water Fir (Glyptostrobus pensilis), for example, which was formerly widespread throughout China and Viet Nam has moved from Endangered to Critically Endangered. The main cause of decline is the loss of habitat to expanding intensive agriculture and in China there appear to be no wild plants remaining. The largest group of recently discovered Chinese Water Fir in LAO PDR was killed through flooding for a newly constructed hydro scheme and very few, if any, of the trees in Viet Nam produce viable seeds, meaning that this species is rapidly moving towards becoming Extinct in the Wild. Another example, Taxus contorta, which is used to produce Taxol, a chemotherapy drug, has moved from Vulnerable to Endangered due to over-exploitation for medicinal use and over-collection for fuel wood and fodder. Many other tropical plant species are also at risk. The majority of endemic flowering plants in the granitic Seychelles islands have been assessed and current studies show that of the 79 endemic species, 77% are at risk of extinction. Most of these are new assessments but one species, the infamous Coco de Mer (Lodoicea maldivica) has been uplisted from Vulnerable to Endangered. Known for its supposed aphrodisiac properties, the Coco de Mer faces threats from fires and illegal harvesting of its kernels. Presently, all collection and sale of its seed is highly regulated, but there is thought to be a significant black market trade in the kernels.

The IUCN Red List keeps apace with scientific discoveries—for example, until recently only one species of Manta Ray was known, but new comparisons of field observations now reveal that there are actually two species of ‘manta’: the Reef Manta Ray (Manta alfredi) and the Giant Manta Ray (Manta birostris), both of which are now classified as Vulnerable. The Giant Manta Ray is the largest living ray, which can grow to more than seven meters across. Manta Ray products have a high value in international trade markets and targeted fisheries hunt them for their valuable gill rakers used in traditional Chinese medicine. Monitoring and regulation of the exploitation and trade of both manta ray species is urgently needed, as well as protection of key habitats.

The results of the assessments of all species of scombrids (tunas, bonitos, mackerels and Spanish mackerels) and billfishes (swordfish and marlins) were published recently in the magazine Science. The detailed results now on the IUCN Red List show that the situation is particularly serious for tunas. Five of the eight species of tuna are in the threatened or Near Threatened categories. These include: Southern Bluefin (Thunnus maccoyii), Critically Endangered; Atlantic Bluefin (T. thynnus), Endangered; Bigeye (T. obesus), Vulnerable; Yellowfin (T. albacares), Near Threatened; and Albacore (T. alalunga), Near Threatened. This information will be invaluable in helping governments make decisions which will safeguard the future of these species, many of which are of extremely high economic value.

The assessment for the Sockeye Salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka), an iconic salmon species found in the North Pacific, was recently reviewed. Whilst the species’ global status remains the same, Least Concern, the assessment at the subpopulation scale shows elevated threats to the species in its North America habitats, with 31% of the assessed subpopulations threatened, underscoring the need for continued conservation action. 

Amphibians form a vital role in ecosystems, are indicators of environmental health, and are literally ‘hopping pharmacies’ being used in the search for new medicines. As one of the most threatened groups, amphibians are closely monitored by IUCN and 26 recently discovered Amphibians have been added to the IUCN Red List. The Blessed Poison Frog (Ranitomeya benedicta) is currently listed as Vulnerable and the Summers’ Poison Frog (Ranitomeya summersi) is Endangered. Both are threatened by habitat loss and harvesting for the international pet trade. 

“The IUCN Red List is critical as an indicator of the health of biodiversity, in identifying conservation needs and informing necessary changes in policy and legislation to drive conservation forward,” says Jean-Christophe Vié, Deputy Director of IUCN’s Global Species Programme. “The world is full of marvelous species that are rapidly moving towards becoming things of myth and legend if conservation efforts are not more successfully implemented—if we do not act now, future generations may not know what a Chinese Water Fir or a Bizarre-nosed Chameleon look like.”

Quotes from IUCN Red List partner organizations 

“Red list assessments are essential for guiding conservation action. Botanic gardens around the world use the IUCN Red List to prioritize which species to study, grow, conserve and restore in the wild,” says Dr Sara Oldfield, Secretary General of Botanic Gardens Conservation International. “The latest update shows that we need to act urgently.”

“Protected areas are essential for conservation of Madagascar’s many reptiles and other threatened endemic species,” says Russell Mittermeier, Conservation International President and Vice President of IUCN. “Indeed without them, few of these unique creatures would survive. We are still far from understanding the full diversity of Madagascar’s fauna and flora since species new to science are being discovered every year.”

"There are 380,000 species of plants named and described, with about 2,000 being added to the list every year. At Kew we estimate one in five of these are likely to be under threat of extinction right now, before we even factor in the impacts of climate change,” says Dr Tim Entwisle, Director, Conservation, Living Collections and Estates, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. “The Red Listing process highlights the state of knowledge for some of the critical groups like conifers and is the first step towards understanding and dealing with one of the biggest problems we have to face in the 21st Century - species extinction. For plants we are calibrating the Barometer of Life; for their relatives, the fungi and algae, we still have little sense of what is out there and what we are losing."

“Each update of the IUCN Red List brings both encouraging and discouraging news. First it demonstrates that concentrated conservation actions, backed by solid natural and social science and local engagement, will result in successful efforts to conserve threatened species,” says Thomas E. Lacher, Jr., Professor of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences, Texas A&M University. “However it also demonstrates that there is much still to accomplish, with worsening conditions for many species, including those only recently described.”

“It is clear to me that society now has the capability to reverse species declines,” says Prof Jonathan Baillie, Director of Conservation Programmes at ZSL. “Fundamentally, it is our values that need to change if we are to avert the looming extinction crisis.”

“Expanding both the number and diversity of species assessed on the IUCN Red List is imperative if we are to conserve the natural world.” says Richard Edwards, Chief Executive of Wildscreen, who are working with the IUCN to help raise the public profile of the world’s threatened species, through the power of wildlife and environmental imagery. “We need to address our disconnection from the natural world, and will only succeed in rescuing species from the brink of extinction, if we successfully communicate their plight, significance, value and importance.”

For more information or interviews please contact:

Maggie Roth, IUCN Media Relations, t +41 22 999 0115, m +41 79 104 2460, e maggie.roth@iucn.org  

Lynne Labanne, IUCN Species Programme Communications Officer, IUCN, t +41 22 999 0153, m +41 79 527 7221, e lynne.labanne@iucn.org

Camellia Williams, IUCN Species Programme Communications, IUCN, t +41 22 999 0154, e camellia.williams@iucn.org