The latest update to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species has revealed that the okapi – the national symbol of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – is creeping ever closer towards extinction.
The okapi is now classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List
Into the Red
The okapi, also known as the ‘forest giraffe’, is endemic to the rainforests of the DRC, and has been found to be in serious decline across its range as a result of poaching and habitat loss. Following the latest set of assessments for the IUCN Red List, the okapi has been moved from being classified as Near Threatened to the far more serious category of Endangered. The presence of rebels, elephant poachers and illegal miners in its habitat have also contributed to the okapi’s dwindling numbers, leaving it just one step away from the highest risk of extinction.
“The okapi is revered in Congo as a national symbol – it even features on the Congolese franc banknotes,” says Dr Noëlle Kümpel, co-chair of the IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group and manager of ZSL’s range-wide okapi conservation project. “Sadly, DRC has been caught up in civil conflict and ravaged by poverty for nearly two decades, leading to widespread degradation of okapi habitat and hunting for its meat and skin. Supporting government efforts to tackle the civil conflict and extreme poverty in the region are critical to securing its survival.”
The latest update to the IUCN Red List brings the total number of species assessed to 71,576, of which a worrying 21,286 are threatened with extinction. Threats to the world’s species range from habitat destruction and climate change to pollution and overexploitation.
The black-browed albatross has been moved from Endangered to Near Threatened
Bad news for birds
According to the update, almost 200 species of bird are now classified as Critically Endangered, with the latest addition being the white-winged flufftail, one of Africa’s rarest birds. This small, secretive bird has suffered as a result of habitat destruction and degradation in its native Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Wetland draining, water abstraction, overgrazing and conversion of land for agriculture have all played a part in the decline of this species, and the IUCN is calling for urgent action to better understand this species’ ecology and address these threats.
However, it is not all bad news, as the population numbers of some species are currently increasing. The albatross family is one of the most threatened bird families on Earth, with bycatch in fisheries being the main threat to their survival, but populations of two such species are on the increase, putting them at a lower risk of extinction. The black-browed albatross has improved in status from Endangered to Near Threatened, while the black-footed albatross has moved from Vulnerable to Near Threatened.
The island fox is endemic to the California Channel Islands
One particularly positive story is that of the island fox, a canid endemic to six of the California Channel Islands off the coast of southern California in the USA. This species was once classified as Critically Endangered following catastrophic declines in the mid-1990s as a result of disease and predation by non-native species such as the golden eagle. All four subspecies of this relative of the mainland grey fox have since increased in number or are showing signs of recovery. The island fox’s change in status to Near Threatened is a credit to the hard work of the US National Park Service, an IUCN Member, which included captive breeding, reintroduction, vaccination against canine diseases, and the relocation of golden eagles.
More to be done
“This IUCN Red List update shows some fantastic conservation successes, which we must learn from, for future conservation efforts,” says Jane Smart, Global Director, IUCN Biodiversity Conservation Group. “However, the overall message remains bleak. With each update, whilst we see some species improving in status, there is a significantly larger number of species appearing in the threatened categories. The world must urgently scale up efforts to avert this devastating trend.”
The importance of scientific knowledge and continued conservation action is highlighted in the case of the leatherback turtle. While the status of the global population of this species appears to be improving, the leatherback turtle continues to face serious threats at the subpopulation level. One of seven biologically and geographically distinct subpopulations, the Northwest Atlantic Ocean leatherback subpopulation is abundant and increasing thanks to successful conservation initiatives in the region. However, its counterparts from both the East Pacific Ocean and West Pacific Ocean subpopulations are suffering a severe decline as a result of extensive egg harvesting and incidental capture in fishing gear. It is feared that these threatened subpopulations may completely collapse if targeted conservation measures are not taken.
Populations of the black-footed albatross are on the increase
Wildscreen, an IUCN Red List Partner, is working towards raising awareness of the diversity of life on Earth and highlighting the plight of its many threatened species. Through its biggest public engagement initiative, ARKive, an unparalleled collection of wildlife footage and images is being made freely available to all for conservation and education.
“Educating people about the current extinction crisis is a vital aspect of the conservation movement,” says Dr Verity Pitts, ARKive Content Manager. “By connecting the world with nature, and successfully communicating the importance of biodiversity, we move one step closer to reversing – or at least halting – the decline of our most valuable resources.”
Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Content Officer