Oct 27

One in five vertebrate species are threatened with extinction according to a landmark study launched by the IUCN on Wednesday 27th October 2010 at the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), in Nagoya, Japan. The timely study, which is the most comprehensive assessment of the world’s vertebrates to date, confirms our fears that across the globe vertebrates are experiencing an extinction crisis. However, it also confirms that the situation would be a lot worse if not for conservation efforts.

The study, which involved some 174 authors from 115 institutions and 38 countries, with voluntary contributions from more than 3,000 scientists, is published in the international journal Science, and used the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species to investigate the status of around 25,000 vertebrate species and how this status has changed over time. The results reveal that, on average, 50 species of mammal, bird and amphibian are pushed closer to extinction each year. The situation has been most stark in Southeast Asia where many species are threatened by habitat loss due to the planting of crops like oil palm, deforestation by commercial timber operations, agricultural conversion to rice paddies, and unsustainable hunting.

Commenting on the study’s findings, E.O. Wilson, Professor at Harvard University and Wildscreen Patron, said “The ‘backbone’ of biodiversity is being eroded. One small step up the Red List is one giant leap forward towards extinction. This is just a small window on the global losses currently taking place.”

The Kihansi spray toad (Nectophrynoides asperginis), now classified as Extinct in the Wild, suffered catastrophic habitat loss following the construction of a dam upstream from the Kinhasi Falls, Tanzania, before succumbing to the devastating impacts of the fungal disease chytridiomycosis.

The study largely focused on vertebrates, but also reported that several other groups of species assessed by the IUCN face a similar fate. The ancient group of plants known as cycads are in a particularly critical state with 63 percent of assessed species threatened with extinction, largely due to extremely high levels of illegal harvesting and trade. Dragonflies and reef-building corals also did not fare well, with 13 and 33 percent of assessed species threatened with extinction, respectively.

Seychelles magpie robinThe global population of the Seychelles magpie robin (Copsychus sechellarum) increased from just 15 birds in 1965 to 180 in 2006 thanks to dedicated conservation efforts.

It is not all doom and gloom, however, as the study also reveals the positive impact of conservation efforts for the first time, with the results suggesting that the status of biodiversity would have declined by at least an additional 20 percent if conservation action had not been taken. There are encouraging stories of 64 mammal, bird and amphibian species that have improved in status due to successful conservation action. Conservation efforts have been particularly successful at tackling the effects of invasive alien species on islands. One such species that has benefited from this is the Seychelles magpie robin, which increased from only 15 birds in 1965 to 180 in 2006 thanks to the control of introduced predators, such as the brown rat (Rattus norvegicus), and captive-breeding programmes.

Mauritius kestrelAnother conservation success story, the Mauritius kestrel (Falco punctatus) was rescued from the brink of extinction by a world-renowned conservation programme. Its population has increased from just 4 birds in 1974 to nearly 1,000 today.

The study clearly demonstrates that conservation efforts have not been in vain. But if we are to meet objectives in tackling biodiversity loss, we must also greatly increase conservation efforts as, at present, they are vastly outweighed by the level of threat. As such, policy-makers at the CBD are to call for nations to commit to a 100-fold increase in resources available to remedy this shortfall and mitigate the loss of our planet’s irreplaceable natural wealth.

To explore more threatened species, visit ARKive.

To find our more about the report and the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, see:

•IUCN Redlist: http://www.iucnredlist.org/
•IUCN Press Release: http://cms.iucn.org/knowledge/news/?6333/Natures-backbone-at-risk