Polar Bears, Hippos Top New IUCN Red List of Threatened Species
GENEVA, Switzerland, May 2, 2006 (IUCN) – The polar bear and the hippopotamus are listed for the first time as vulnerable species at risk of extinction in the 2006 Red List of Threatened Species released today by the IUCN-World Conservation Union. The ongoing decline of the Earth’s biodiversity due to the impact of humans upon life on Earth is revealed in this authoritative assessment of the global status of plants and animals.
About 40 percent of the 40,177 species assessed using the IUCN Red List criteria, are now listed as threatened with extinction - a total of 16,119 species. A first assessment of ocean sharks and rays, and freshwater fishes shows them increasingly at risk of extinction. Desert gazelles and Mediterranean plants are also losing the battle to survive.
“The 2006 IUCN Red List shows a clear trend: biodiversity loss is increasing, not slowing down,” said IUCN Director General Achim Steiner, who will take over as head of the UN Environment Programme effective June 15.
“The implications of this trend for the productivity and resilience of ecosystems and the lives and livelihoods of billions of people who depend on them are far-reaching," Steiner said.
One in every three amphibian species and a quarter of the world’s coniferous trees, are now listed as Endangered. In addition, one in eight bird species and one in four mammals are still classed as Endangered.
Widely recognized as the IUCN Red List provides an accurate measure of progress, or lack of it, in achieving the globally agreed target to significantly reduce the current rate of biodiversity loss by 2010.
The number of known threatened species has now reached 16,119, the IUCN Red List shows. The categories of threat are, in descending order of threat:
The total number of species declared officially by the IUCN Extinct is 784 and a further 65 are only found in captivity or cultivation.
Because global warming is affecting some of the coldest places on Earth, the polar bear, Ursus maritimus, is at greater risk of extinction this year. Previously listed by IUCN as a conservation dependent species, the polar bear moves into the threatened categories and has been classified as Vulnerable.
In polar regions, summer sea ice is expected to decrease by 50-100 percent over the next 50-100 years. Polar bears are dependent upon Arctic ice-floes for hunting seals and highly specialized for life in the Arctic marine environment, so they are predicted to suffer more than a 30 percent population decline in the next 45 years.
The common hippopotamus, Hippopotamus amphibius, is also in trouble. One of Africa’s best known animals, it is listed as threatened for the first time and is now classified as Vulnerable, primarily because of a catastrophic decline in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
In 1994 the DRC had the second largest hippo population in Africa – 30,000 after Zambia’s 40,000 - but numbers have plummeted by 95 percent. The decline is due to unregulated hunting for meat and the ivory of their teeth.
“Regional conflicts and political instability in some African countries have created hardship for many of the region’s inhabitants and the impact on wildlife has been equally devastating,” said Jeffrey McNeely, IUCN chief scientist.
Another casualty of political instability and unrest is the much less well known pygmy hippo, Hexaprotodon liberiensis, restricted to only a handful of West African countries. This shy forest animal was already classified as Vulnerable, but illegal logging and the inability to enforce protection in core areas has pushed it into ever decreasing fragments of forest. It is now classified in the higher threat category Endangered.
"Humankind’s global footprint on the planet extends even to regions that would appear to be far removed from human influence," the IUCN said in announcing the new Red List today.
The specially adapted animals and plants of deserts and drylands are some of the rarest and most threatened. The main threat to desert wildlife is unregulated hunting followed by habitat degradation. "Slowly but surely deserts are being emptied of their diverse and specialized wildlife, almost unnoticed," the IUCN said.
The dama gazelle, Gazella dama, of the Sahara desert, already listed as Endangered in 2004, has suffered an 80 percent crash in numbers over the past 10 years because of uncontrolled hunting parties, and has been upgraded to Critically Endangered.
Other Saharan gazelle species are also threatened and the IUCN predicts that they will go the way of the scimitar-horned oryx, Oryx dammah, and become Extinct in the Wild.
Asian antelopes face similar pressures. The goitered gazelle, Gazella subgutturosa, is widespread across the deserts and semi-deserts of central Asia and the Middle East and until a few years ago had substantial populations in Kazakhstan and Mongolia. Both countries have seen sharp declines because of habitat loss and illegal hunting for meat. The gazelle has been reclassified from Near Threatened to Vulnerable.
A key addition to the 2006 Red List of Threatened Species is the first comprehensive regional assessment of selected marine groups.
Sharks and rays are among the first marine groups to be systematically assessed, and of the 547 species listed, 20 percent are threatened with extinction.
"This confirms suspicions that these mainly slow growing species are exceptionally susceptible to over-fishing and are disappearing at an unprecedented rate across the globe," the IUCN said.
“Marine species are proving to be just as much at risk of extinction as their land-based counterparts: the desperate situation of many sharks and rays is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Craig Hilton-Taylor of the IUCN Red List Unit.
The angel shark, Squatina squatina, and common skate, Dipturus batis, were once familiar sights in European fish-markets, but they have all but disappeared from sale.
The angel shark, upgraded from Vulnerable to Critically Endangered, has been declared extinct in the North Sea and the common skate, upgraded from Endangered to Critically Endangered, is now very scarce in the Irish Sea and southern North Sea.
As fisheries extend into ever deeper waters, the deep bottom-dwelling gulper shark, Centrophorus granulosus, is listed as Vulnerable with local population declines of up to 95percent. Fished for its meat and rich liver oil, the level of fishing pressure on this species is "well beyond their reproductive capacity and sustainable fishing, " the IUCN said.
Without international catch limits, sharks and rays will continue to disappear, said Hilton-Taylor. “It is critical that urgent action to greatly improve management practices and implement conservation measures, such as agreed non-fishing areas, enforced mesh-size regulations and international catch limits, is taken before it is too late.”
Freshwater fish species have suffered some of the most dramatic declines, the new Red List assessment shows. Fifty-six percent of the 252 endemic freshwater Mediterranean fish are threatened with extinction, the highest proportion of any regional freshwater fish assessment so far.
Seven species, including carp relatives Alburnus akili in Turkey and Telestes ukliva from Croatia, are now Extinct.
“We need fish for food, but human activities in watersheds, through forest clearance, pollution, water abstraction and eutrophication are major factors influencing water quality and quantity,” said Dr Jean-Christophe Vié, deputy coordinator of the IUCN Species Programme.
"This has a major impact on freshwater species, and in turn on the wellbeing of riparian communities," he said.
In East Africa, human impacts on the freshwater environment threaten 28 percent of freshwater fish species. This could have major commercial and dietary consequences for the region, the IUCN projects.
In Malawi, 70 percent of animal protein consumed comes from freshwater fish. The lake trout or Mpasa, Opsaridium microlepis, from Lake Malawi is fished heavily during its spawning runs upriver but has suffered a 50 percent decline in the past 10 years, due to siltation of its spawning grounds and reduced flows due to water abstraction. It is now listed as Endangered.
The food species that sustain freshwater fishes are vanishing too. Of the 564 dragonfly and damselfly species so far assessed, nearly one in three are threatened, including nearly 40 percent of endemic Sri Lankan dragonflies.
With their semi-aquatic habitat, dragonflies are proving to be useful indicators of habitat quality above and below the water surface.
In the densely populated Kenyan highlands, where many rivers originate, the Endangered dragonfly Notogomphus maathaiae of mountain forest streams is being promoted as a flagship species to create awareness for their potential as “guardians of the watershed.”
Protecting the riverside forests also will help the farmers of the foothills, by guaranteeing soil stability and a steady flow of water.
"It is very appropriate," said the IUCN, "that this dragonfly has been named in honour of African Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai, a tireless campaigner for the protection of the world’s natural resources in the fight against poverty."
As well as being an important source of food, freshwater ecosystems are essential for clean drinking water and sanitation, the IUCN pointed out. Over a billion people worldwide still do not have access to safe water. The continuing decline in wetlands and freshwater ecosystems will make it increasingly difficult to address this need and maintain existing supplies.
The 2006 Red List includes additional species from the Mediterranean region, one of the world’s 34 biodiversity hotspots with nearly 25,000 species of plants – of which 60 percent are found nowhere else in the world.
In the Mediterranean, the pressures from urbanization, mass tourism and intensive agriculture have pushed more and more native species, like the bugloss Anchusa crispa and centuary Femeniasia balearica, both Critically Endangered, towards extinction. The bugloss is only known from 20 small sites and less than 2,200 mature centaury plants remain.
The extinction of these threatened species is not inevitable, says Steiner, who is hopeful that humans will take the 2006 Red List as a wake-up call.
"Reversing this trend is possible, as numerous conservation success stories have proven," Steiner said. He points to the recovery of the white-tailed eagle, Haliaeetus albicilla, a European species.
Following large recoveries in many European countries, the numbers of white-tailed eagles doubled in the 1990s and it has been downlisted from Near Threatened to Least Concern. The IUCN says that enforcement of legislation to protect the species from being killed, and protective measures to address threats from habitat changes and pollution have resulted in increasing populations.
Another success story is happening on Australia’s Christmas Island. The seabird Abbott’s booby, Papasula abbotti, was declining due to habitat clearance and an introduced invasive alien species, the yellow crazy ant, Anoplolepis gracilipes, which had a major impact on the island’s ecology. The booby, listed as Critically Endangered in 2004, is recovering thanks to conservation measures and has now moved down a category to Endangered.
Other plants and animals highlighted in previous Red List announcements are now the focus of concerted conservation actions, which should lead to an improvement in their conservation status in the near future.
The 300 kilogram (660 pound) Mekong catfish, Pangasianodon gigas, of Southeast Asia is one of the largest freshwater fish in the world and was listed as Critically Endangered in 2003. Adopted as one of four flagship species by the Mekong Wetlands Biodiversity and Sustainable Use Programme, it is the focus of regional co-operation on fisheries management issues and conservation activities.
The catfish is a good example of successful conservation efforts undertaken by groups working in tandem. "To succeed on a global scale, we need new alliances across all sectors of society," Steiner said. "Biodiversity cannot be saved by environmentalists alone – it must become the responsibility of everyone with the power and resources to act."
Swift action since the dramatic 97 percent population crash of the Indian vulture, Gyps indicus, listed as Critically Endangered in 2002, means that the future for this and related species is more secure because a veterinary drug, diclofenac, is now banned in India.
The drug unintentionally poisoned the vultures when they ate carcasses of animals that had been given the drug to relieve pain. A promising substitute has been found and captive breeding assurance colonies will be used for a vulture re-introduction program.
“These examples show that conservation measures are making a difference,” concluded Steiner. “What we need is more of them. Conservation successes document that we should not be passive by-standers in the unfolding tragedy of biodiversity loss and species extinction. IUCN together with the many actors in the global conservation community will continue to advocate greater investments in biodiversity and to mobilize new coalitions across all sectors of society.”
To view the 2006 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, click here.
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is a joint effort between IUCN and its Species Survival Commission, BirdLife International, Conservation International’s Center for Applied Biodiversity Science, NatureServe, and the Zoological Society of London.
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