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2004 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species reveals 15,589 species at risk of extinction


At least 15 species have gone extinct in the past 20 years

Slender loris (Loris tardigradus) from Sri Lanka is assessed as Endangered. Between 1956 and 1993, Sri Lanka lost more than 50% of forest cover to human activities, followed by a similar rate of decline in the remaining forest cover between 1994 and 2003. Photo © Anna Nekaris.

The pomegranate tree (Punica protopunica) is a close relative of the cultivated pomegranate and is endemic to Soqotra, Yemen. Although the population is apparently stable at present, it has evidently declined in the past, for reasons that are not certain. It has a severely fragmented distribution and over large areas the tree is absent except for small relict populations with no obvious regeneration. The tree is listed as Vulnerable. Photo © Anthony G. Miller

The world’s biodiversity is declining at an unprecedented rate, according to the 2004 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and a companion study of the data, the Global Species Assessment (GSA). The GSA is the most comprehensive evaluation ever undertaken of the status of the world’s biodiversity. Its findings include the following:

  • At least 15 species have gone extinct in the past 20 years, and an additional 12 species survive only in captivity. However, the real extinction figure is believed to be much higher, due to the conservative approach used in such listings;
  • A total of 15,589 species (7,266 animal species and 8,323 plant and lichen species) are now considered at risk of extinction. This represents an increase of 3,330 since the previous year’s Red List, due to a combination of first-ever species evaluations as well as reassessments;
  • One in three amphibians (32%) and almost half (42%) of turtles and tortoises are now known to be threatened with extinction, along with one in eight birds (12%) and one in four mammals (23%);
  • There are major gaps in our knowledge of threatened species, and many species-rich groups have been poorly assessed: among plants, for example, only the conifers and cycads have been completely evaluated, with 25% and 52% threatened, respectively;
  • The numbers of threatened species are increasing across almost all major taxonomic groups;
  • Continental species extinctions have become as common as extinctions on islands, which are typically more ecologically fragile, and
  • Current extinction rates are at least one hundred to a thousand times higher than background, or "natural" rates.

The Red List and the GSA were unveiled today at the opening of the 3rd IUCN World Conservation Congress. Halting the growing extinction crisis will be a major focus of the 3,500 delegates attending the world’s largest conservation gathering.

"This sobering new report should serve as a wake-up call to take immediate action to prevent further species loss," says Russell A. Mittermeier, president of Conservation International and chairman of the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Primate Specialist Group. "It is not too late to act. But we cannot assume that any conservation activities will automatically prevent extinctions. We need better-funded efforts focused specifically on those animals and plants on the brink of extinction, and on those areas where such species are concentrated."

Much of the increase in the number of threatened species appearing on this year’s Red List is due to the inclusion, for the first time, of complete assessments of all the world’s amphibians, thanks to the Global Amphibian Assessment completed in September. This year also marks the debut of the Red List Index, a new tool for measuring trends in extinction risk. Red List Indices are currently available for birds and amphibians, and show that their status has declined steadily since the 1980s.

The situation in freshwater habitats is less well known than for terrestrial habitats, but early signs show it is equally serious. Amphibians, which rely on freshwater, are considered to be outstanding indicators of ecosystem health; therefore their catastrophic decline serves notice about the state of the planet’s water resources.

The marine environment is also not as well known as the terrestrial environment, but many marine species are being over-exploited to the point of extinction. "Although 15,589 species are known to be threatened with extinction, this greatly underestimates the true number, as only a fraction of known species have been assessed. There is still much to be discovered about key species-rich habitats, such as tropical forests, marine and freshwater systems, or particular groups, such as invertebrates, plants and fungi, which make up the majority of biodiversity," says Craig Hilton-Taylor, IUCN’s Red List Programme Officer.

People, either directly or indirectly, are the main reason for most species’ declines. Habitat destruction and degradation are the leading threats, but other significant pressures include over-exploitation (for food, pets, and medicine), introduced species, pollution, and disease. Climate change is increasingly recognized as a serious threat.

The GSA shows that threatened species are often concentrated in densely populated areas, particularly in much of Asia (for example, in the Western Ghats of India and the island of Java in Indonesia) and parts of Africa (such as the Albertine Rift and the Ethiopian Highlands). A major conservation challenge will therefore be to reconcile the demands of large numbers of people on the environment, while protecting the biodiversity upon which so many people’s livelihoods depend.

The importance of international support in safeguarding biodiversity is highlighted by the fact that many countries with a high concentration of threatened species have a low Gross National Income (GNI) per capita (for example, Brazil, Columbia, Cameroon, China, India, Indonesia, Madagascar, and the Philippines) and are unable to implement the required conservation measures without international assistance.

Despite the ominous outlook and the many gaps in knowledge, the GSA points out that species can (and many have) been saved from extinction, although the majority of threatened species require much more action to improve their status. In this sense, the IUCN Red List can serve as an effective tool to guide conservation practitioners with conservation planning and priority setting. "It is clear that the situation facing our species is serious and getting worse. We must refocus and rethink the way in which society must respond to this global threat," says Achim Steiner, IUCN’s Director General. "While most threats to biodiversity are human-driven, human actions alone can prevent many species from becoming extinct."

The GSA and Red List are produced by a consortium of the IUCN–The World Conservation Union and its Species Survival Commission; Conservation International and its Center for Applied Biodiversity Science; BirdLife International, and NatureServe.

Luba Vangelova | EurekAlert!
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