The latest update of The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species shows worrying declines for conifers – the world’s oldest and largest organisms – freshwater shrimps, cone snails and the Yangtze Finless Porpoise. The Santa Cruz Pupfish, a lizard known as the Cape Verde Giant Skink and a species of freshwater shrimp have been declared Extinct.
With this update, 4,807 species have been added to The IUCN Red List bringing the total of assessed species to 70,294, of which 20,934 are threatened with extinction.
“Thanks to the IUCN Red List, we now have more information on the state of the world’s biodiversity than ever before,” says Jane Smart, Global Director, IUCN Biodiversity Conservation Group. “But the overall picture is alarming. We must use this knowledge to its fullest – making our conservation efforts well targeted and efficient – if we are serious about stopping the extinction crisis that continues to threaten all life on Earth.”
The update includes the first global reassessment of conifers. According to the results, 34% of the world’s cedars, cypresses, firs and other cone-bearing plants are now threatened with extinction – an increase by 4% since the last complete assessment in 1998.
The conservation status of 33 conifer species has declined, including California’s Monterey Pine (Pinus radiata) – the world’s most widely planted pine valued for its rapid growth and pulp qualities. The tree has moved from Least Concern – a category used for species at relatively low extinction risk – to Endangered, with main threats including feral goats and attacks by an invasive pathogen. Another conifer species previously classified as Least Concern, the Atlas Cedar (Cedrus atlantica) – native to the Atlas Mountains of Algeria and Morocco – is now Endangered due to over-exploitation. Its reduced population is threatened by various pests.
On the other hand, conservation action has led to improved status for the Lawson’s Cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana). Once a heavily-traded species, the tree is now listed as Near Threatened thanks to improved management practices in California and Oregon, including planting disease resistant stock. If conservation actions continue, this conifer may be listed as Least Concern within 10 years.
“Conservation works and the results for the Lawson’s Cypress are reassuring,” says Aljos Farjon, Chair of the IUCN SSC Conifer Specialist Group. “However, this is clearly not enough. More research into the status and distribution of many species is urgently needed. We suspect that there are many new species waiting to be described but it is likely that they will never be found due to the rate of deforestation and habitat conversion for oil palm plantations.”
Conifers are the oldest and largest species on the planet. The Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva) for example, can live to an age of nearly 5,000 years and the Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) grows to a height of 110 meters. Apart from wetlands, coniferous forests sequester more carbon than any other biome – three times the amount sequestered by temperate and tropical forests. Their economic value is immense: softwoods are used for timber and paper production and the anti-cancer agent Taxol® is derived from the bark of many of the Yew species.
This update of The IUCN Red List provides results of the first-ever global assessment of freshwater shrimps, of which 28% are threatened with extinction. Ten percent are used for human consumption, including the Giant River Prawn (Macrobrachium rosenbergii), and they are an important part of the freshwater food web. Pollution, modification of habitat and the aquarium trade are some of the primary threats they face.
Cone snails, found in tropical marine environments, have also been assessed for the first time, with 8% threatened with extinction. As predators, they are an important element in marine ecosystems and are highly valued for their lethal toxins which are used in the development of new drugs to treat intractable pain. These animals also have beautiful shells which have been collected for centuries, with some rare species changing hands for thousands of dollars. Habitat loss and pollution represent the greatest threats to these species.
“This assessment is a milestone due to an innovative cooperation between the shell-traders and scientific experts,” says Howard Peters of University of York, member of the IUCN SSC Mollusc Specialist Group. “Their joint work has provided new insights into the distribution, trade and threats facing each species. This is key to our future conservation efforts.”
Also assessed is the Yangtze Finless Porpoise (Neophocaena asiaeorientalis asiaeorientalis), a subspecies of the Narrow-ridged Finless Porpoise and one of the world’s few remaining freshwater cetaceans. It is found in China’s Yangtze river and two adjoining lakes, Poyang and Dongting. Its population, estimated at about 1,800 in 2006, has been declining by more than 5% annually since the 1980s and it has been assessed as Critically Endangered. Increasing threats to these porpoises include illegal fishing, intense vessel traffic, sand mining and pollution.
The White-lipped Peccary (Tayassu pecari) – a member of the pig family found in Central and South America – has declined by 89% in Costa Rica and 84% in Mexico and Guatemala and is now listed as Vulnerable. Hunting and habitat loss explain some of the decline but many cases of mysterious disappearance of the species have been documented in several regions with disease suspected to be the primary cause.
Three species have been declared Extinct. Last seen in 1912, the Cape Verde Giant Skink (Chioninia coctei) – a lizard that was restricted to a single island and two smaller islets – was driven to extinction by introduced rats and cats. The Santa Cruz Pupfish (Cyprinodon arcuatus) – once found in the Santa Cruz River basin in Arizona – is now Extinct due to water depletion, and the Freshwater Shrimp Macrobrachium leptodactylus was a victim of habitat degradation and urban development.
“Once again, an update of the IUCN Red List provides us with some disturbing news,” says Simon Stuart, Chair of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission. “However, there are instances of successes. For example, increased survey efforts in Costa Rica have uncovered new subpopulations of Costa Rica Brook Frog and Green-eyed Frog. Sadly, much more needs to be done as the overall trend to extinction continues in many species.”
Quotes from IUCN Red List partner organizations
“The Baiji (a unique freshwater dolphin) only recently went extinct on the Yangtze River,” says Prof. Jonathan Baillie, Director of Conservation Programmes at ZSL. “If we now lose the Yangtze Finless Porpoise, future generations will undoubtedly wonder if we were ignorant, incompetent or both.”
“Plants are the foundation of life on earth, providing valuable ecosystem services as well. The recent assessment of conifers shows that many species, including those with known economic and human benefit, are under increasing threat,” says Dr Thomas Lacher, Jr Professor, Texas A&M University. “As IUCN expands the coverage of assessments to more and more plant groups it will allow conservation actions to focus on protecting the species and ecosystems that support the survival of all life.”
“Each IUCN Red List update brings a more comprehensive picture of the conservation status of the world’s species,” says Lucas Joppa, Conservation Scientist at Microsoft Research “Reassessments show how the status of these species changes over time. Combining these pinpoints, what works – and what doesn’t – in our efforts to save species. The case of Lawson’s Cypress shows how success can be achieved, and illustrates the immense value in the Red Listing process.”
“This latest Red List update is further evidence of our impact on the world’s threatened biodiversity” says Richard Edwards, Chief Executive of Wildscreen, who are working with the IUCN to help raise the public profile of the world’s threatened species, through the power of wildlife imagery. “Further evidence that extinction is real, and that we must all act, and act now, if we are to prevent this most tragic reality for many more of the world’s species.”
Dr. Russell Mittermeier, President of Conservation International and Chair of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission’s Primate Specialist Group, said: “This latest update provides invaluable information on several new and very important groups of species. Once again, it demonstrates that the IUCN Red List is our most fundamental tool in stemming the extinction crisis, maintaining global biodiversity, and achieving the very ambitious Target 12 of the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity (to prevent the extinction of threatened species by 2020) – and indeed many of the other 20 Aichi Targets as well.”
“Thanks to the indefatigable efforts of colleagues in Latin America, there are hopeful signs that the populations of some frog species that were decimated by the one-two punch of climate change and disease are stabilizing and, in some cases, showing signs of a slow recovery,” says Mary Klein, president and CEO of NatureServe. “However, the freshwater shrimp data further confirm what we know from analyses of other animal groups: freshwater species are among the most threatened with extinction due to the dams, channels, pollution, and introduced exotic species in those ecosystems.”