Hundreds of Species Cling to Existence in Just One Place on Earth

WASHINGTON, DC, December 13, 2005 (ENS) - Animals, birds and plants are going extinct more quickly now than they have for thousands of years. To help save as many species as possible, scientists working with the 52 member organizations of the Alliance for Zero Extinction have identified endangered species whose global populations are reduced to just one primary site. If that site can be protected with "immediate and direct" action, the Alliance believes, the species living there can be saved.

The scientists found 794 such species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and conifers, three times the number recorded as having gone extinct since 1500. These species occur in 595 sites, concentrated in tropical forests, on islands, and in mountainous areas.

The sites where these 794 species cling to existence are called "centers of imminent extinction" in the study published Monday in the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences."

“Although saving sites and species is vitally important in itself, this is about much more,” said American Bird Conservancy’s Mike Parr, the secretary of Alliance for Zero Extinction. “At stake are the future genetic diversity of Earth’s ecosystems, the global ecotourism economy worth billions of dollars per year, and the incalculable benefit of clean water from hundreds of key watersheds.

crane

This whooping crane is one of only 300 that survive today. (Photo courtesy USFWS)
Three criteria were used to identify sites for inclusion on the AZE list. First, a site must contain at least one endangered or critically endangered species, as listed on the 2004 World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, www.iucnredlist.org. Sites were not designated on the basis of unlisted or unevaluated species, data deficient species, or vulnerable species. Two sites were designated as the only suitable reintroduction site for a species assessed as extinct in the wild.

Second, a site must (i) be the sole area where an endangered or critically endangered species occurs, (ii) contain more than 95 percent of the global population of the species, or (iii) contain the overwhelmingly significant known population for one life-history segment of the species, such as breeding or nonbreeding. Less than 10 percent of all sites were triggered by (ii), and only 15 sites were triggered by (iii) - two for migratory birds and 13 for breeding seabirds.

Third, a site must have a definable boundary, within which habitats, biological communities, or management issues share more in common with each other than they do with those in adjacent areas, such as a single lake, mountaintop, or forest fragment.

Among the imperiled species are monkey-faced bats, cloud rats, golden moles, poison frogs, exotic parrots and hummingbirds, a hamster and a dormouse, a penguin, crocodiles, iguanas, and monkeys.

The Javan rhinoceros, Rhinoceros sondaicus, is the largest mammal on the list, found only in a national park on the Ujung Kulon Peninsula, which forms the westernmost point of the Indonesian island of Java.

The species was once widespread from Bengal eastward to Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and southwards to the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java.

The cause of population decline is mainly attributable to the excessive demand for rhino horn and other products for Chinese and allied medicine systems, according to the IUCN, which says the size of this population is probably limited to about 54-60 animals, the carrying capacity of the area.

lemur

The golden-crowned sifaka lives only in the fragmented forests of northeast Madagascar. (Photo © David Haring/Duke University Primate Center)
On the island nation of Madagascar, a recently discovered species of lemur, the golden-crowned sifaka, Propithecus tattersalli, was only described as a separate species in 1988. It survives in a small area between the Manambato and Loky Rivers in northeast Madagascar.

The largest single population is estimated to be around 2,500 individuals. The forests throughout this lemur's limited range are already fragmented, and the species only occurs in isolated forest remnants that are surrounded by agriculture. The major threats are gold mining and loss of habitat due to conversion for agriculture, uncontrolled grass fires, wood extraction for housing, firewood production, and logging.

One endangered bird species familiar to North Americans is the whooping crane, Grus americana, which migrates from Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in the United States of Canada's Wood Buffalo National Park.

Never very abundant, the whooping crane suffered in the late 1800s from indiscriminate shooting, habitat disturbance, and the draining of the large, isolated marshes that it frequented, according to the Canadian Museum of Nature. In 1941 there were only 21 wild birds and two captives. Today, after careful conservation, there are 300 whooping cranes in the world.

The American Bird Conservancy is currently involved in conservation projects with partners at 19 of the 88 Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE) bird sites in the Americas.

In the past year the Conservancy has helped partner groups in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru to purchase more than 20,000 acres to create five new private bird reserves, and expand five others for species identified by the Alliance as existing in only one place on Earth. These species include the colorful puffleg, blue-billed curassow, long-whiskered owlet, jocotoco antpitta, and pale-headed brush-finch.

Habitat protection is the key to saving these species, says the Alliance, pointing out that 93 percent of the imperiled species listed in the study are threatened primarily by habitat destruction. If a species' last habitat is lost, then it will become extinct, or humans are committed to maintaining it only in captivity for all time.

Silhouette Island

Silhouette Island in the Seychelle Islands is the last stronghold of the Critically Endangered Seychelles sheath-tailed bat, Coleura seychellensis. (Photo © Dr. Justin Gerlach)
Habitat protection also benefits the planet as a whole by helping to provide clean water, and capturing carbon to help slow global warming, the Alliance says.

Protection of these sites would conserve more than the individual threatened species that trigger them, the study's authors say. Their list includes 103 sites where more than one trigger species survives, and several contain more than five species, such as Massif de la Hotte in Haiti, which has 13.

The scientists say that although the species they identify in the study "require immediate attention and may often prove difficult to conserve, their recovery is within reach."

They report that four bird species that would have met all three criteria in the past are now recovering due to successful conservation and are no longer eligible. These species include Rodrigues Fody, Foudia flavicans, found only on northern slopes of the island of Rodrigues; the Seychelles warbler, Acrocephalus sechellensis; the Seychelles Magpie-Robin, Copyschus sechellarum; and the Black Robin, Petroica traversi, found only on New Zealand's Chatham Islands.

The scientists say that the species they have identified for the AZE study are only a fraction of those at risk of extinction from intensifying human activities. More trigger species - particularly freshwater species, terrestrial invertebrates, and plants - will be identified as knowledge improves.

This is a one-shot deal for the human race,” said Parr. “We have a moral obligation to act. The science is in, and we are almost out of time.”

Also published Monday are a site map and a report that details the actions required to save these sites and species. These items, along with a searchable database of sites, web links for the Alliance’s 52 member organizations, and photos of AZE sites and species, can be found at: www.zeroextinction.org.