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The IUCN Red List – An Urgent Call for Immediate Action

3 May 2006

The number of known threatened species has reached 16,119. Mediterranean flowers and a quarter of coniferous trees are amongst the species now known to be facing extinction.

 St Helena Olive

George Benjamin in his front garden with the last
wild St Helena olive
Image from Arkive © Rebecca Cairns-Wicks

784 species have been declared officially Extinct, including the St Helena Olive and a further 65 are only found in captivity or cultivation.

Of the 40,177 species assessed using the IUCN Red List criteria, 16,119 are now listed as threatened with extinction.

A total of 8,394 plants and lichens, including a quarter of the world’s coniferous trees and over half its cycads, but the figure may be a gross underestimate because fewer than 3% of the world’s 1.9 million described species have been assessed by the Red List.

Widely recognized as the most authoritative assessment of the global status of plants and animals, the 2006 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 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 2006 IUCN Red List shows a clear trend: biodiversity loss is increasing, not slowing down,” said Achim Steiner, Director General of the World Conservation Union (IUCN). “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. Reversing this trend is possible, as numerous conservation success stories have proven. To succeed on a global scale, we need new alliances across all sectors of society. Biodiversity cannot be saved by environmentalists alone – it must become the responsibility of everyone with the power and resources to act,” he added.

Melting Icecaps …

Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are fast becoming one of the most high-profile casualties of global warming. But the impact of climate change is increasingly felt by all polar species including plants, as summer sea ice is expected to decrease by 50-100% over the next 50-100 years. It is predicted by climate change scientists that the death of plants in the tundra would lead to a rapid acceleration in global warming as CO2 is released into the atmosphere.

Dying Deserts …

Humankind’s global footprint on the planet extends even to regions that would appear to be far removed from human influence. Deserts and drylands may appear relatively untouched, but their specially adapted animals and plants are also some of the rarest and most threatened. Slowly but surely deserts are being emptied of their diverse and specialized wildlife, almost unnoticed.


Empty Oceans

A key addition to the 2006 Red List of Threatened Species is the first comprehensive regional assessment of selected marine groups.

20% of the 547 sharks and rays species listed, among the first marine groups to be systematically assessed, are threatened with extinction.

Freshwater species are not faring any better. They have suffered some of the most dramatic declines: 56% 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 in Turkey and Croatia , are now Extinct.

As well as being an important source of food, freshwater ecosystems are essential for clean drinking water and sanitation. 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.

“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. This has a major impact on freshwater species, and in turn on the wellbeing of riparian communities,” said Dr Jean-Christophe Vié, Deputy Coordinator, IUCN Species Programme.

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 its riverside forests will also help the farmers of the foothills, by guaranteeing soil stability and a steady flow of water.
“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.

Threatened Mediterranean Plants

Lamyropsis microcephala 

A thorny problem - Lamyropsis microcephala is
critically endangered but not yet in cultivation
- can your garden help? 

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% 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 Cypriot Pallid squill (Squilla morrissii ) is also on the list of critically endangered Mediterranean species.


What Now?

But what can be done to halt and reverse the decline of the Earth’s biodiversity on which so much of our own well-being depends?

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species acts as a wake up call to the world by focusing attention on the state of our natural environment. It has become an increasingly powerful tool for conservation planning, management, monitoring and decision-making. It is widely cited in the scientific literature as the most suitable system for assessing species extinction risk.

In addition to being the most reputable science-based decision-making tool for species conservation on a global scale, it is being more widely adopted at the national level. At least 57 countries now use national Red Lists, following IUCN criteria to focus their conservation priorities.

You Can Help - Act Now!

Thanks to conservation action, the status of certain species has improved: proof that conservation does work.

Several 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.

“These examples show that conservation measures are making a difference,” concluded Achim 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.”

Follow the weblinks below to find out more about how you and your botanic garden can help threatened species worldwide.

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