Red List reveals conservation successes, but extinctions continue apace

Habitat destruction and human development causing decline of thousands of species, IUCN conservation thinktank warns
Damian Carrington The Guardian 26 Nov 13;

The blue-tongued forest giraffe, the national symbol of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is on the brink of extinction, according to the latest update to the Red List of threatened species. The stripy-legged creature, which appears on Congolese banknotes and is actually a species of okapi, has become another victim of the DRC's long-running war. But surveys reveal that conservation efforts have had a positive effect on ocean-roaming leatherback turtles and albatrosses, while a Californian fox has returned from the edge.

"This Red List update shows some fantastic conservation successes, from which we must learn," said Jane Smart, a director at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which compiles the list.

"However, the overall message remains bleak. With each update, whilst we see some species improving in status, there is a significantly larger number of species appearing in the threatened categories. The world must urgently scale up efforts to avert this devastating trend," she added.

The Red List now contains assessments of 71,500 species, including all mammals, birds and amphibians. The latest update added more than 1,000 species. Of the species understood well enough for a judgment to be made, more than a third are under threat. About half of known reptiles have been assessed and a third of fish, but only a fraction of invertebrates, plants and fungi.

Habitat destruction, hunting and the introduction of alien predators as a result of human activity are causing the greatest mass extinction of species on Earth since an asteroid strike wiped out the dinosaurs 65m years ago.

The shy forest giraffe is confined to the fast-disappearing and militia-filled forests of DRC, and its population is plummeting as its meat is prized. "It is revered in Congo as a national symbol but, sadly, DRC has been caught up in civil conflict and ravaged by poverty for nearly two decades," said Noëlle Kümpel, co-chair of the IUCN Giraffe and Okapi specialist group.

The animal, which has a prehensile blue tongue and zebra-like stripes on its behind, is extremely difficult to protect in an area rife with elephant poachers and illegal mining. In a notorious incident in 2012, armed rebels attacked the headquarters of the DRC's Okapi Wildlife Reserve and killed seven people and all 14 captive animals.

Other species whose prospects are plunging include the white-winged flufftail, a secretive African wetlands bird threatened by agriculture. "People treat wetlands as wasteland that needs to be drained," said Craig Hilton-Taylor, manager of the IUCN's Red List unit in Cambridge.

Assessments have been added for 24 Caribbean skinks – a type of lizard – but it may already be too late. "We went to look for them, but there is no trace," said Hilton-Taylor. Many may already be extinct, having fallen prey to mongooses that were themselves introduced to tackle an earlier alien predator: rats.

Among birds, the martial eagle – a sub-Saharan bird of prey – is struggling as it is shot and poisoned by farmers. Its numbers have plummeted by 60% in 20 years.

The decline of many species is linked to human development, but Hilton-Taylor warned that many people depended on wildlife. He highlighted bees and other pollinators believed to be declining globally. The IUCN has added assessments of 83 bumblebees and hundreds more are to follow. "Without pollinators, many food crops would not grow," he said.

Another example is aloe plants: "Virtually every aloe is used medicinally – if these species go extinct, then in poor countries, they have lost their source of primary healthcare."

A report in 2010 concluded that environmental destruction costs the world's economy trillions of dollars a year.

The recovering species highlighted have all benefited from conservation action. Leatherback turtles, a global species, have been plagued by the ease with which their beach-laid eggs can be poached and by being drowned in industrial fishing nets. Beach protection has led the Atlantic population to double in two years, although the Pacific population remains in severe decline.

Another ocean species that roams for thousands of miles, the albatross, has seen some recovery after action against long-line fisheries. The extended lines of multiple baited hooks attracted and ensnared many thousands a year. The black-browed albatross, centred around the Falkland Islands, and the black-footed albatross, concentrated around the Hawaiian chain, have moved down to "near threatened" status.

Another success is the island fox, which had been lost from some of the southern Californian islands on which it lived, but has staged a remarkable comeback. A captive-breeding and reintroduction programme was accompanied by vaccination against canine diseases, which had decimated numbers. Golden eagles, which prey on the fox, were also relocated as part of the plan.

"The trend is that things are generally getting worse," said Hilton-Taylor. "But it is possible to turn things around, and do it quickly."

Forest giraffe joins growing number of threatened species
IUCN 26 Nov 13;

The Okapi – a national symbol of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, also known as the “forest giraffe” – and the sub-Saharan White-winged Flufftail – one of Africa’s rarest birds – are now on the brink of extinction, according to the latest update of The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™. Two species of albatross, the Leatherback Turtle and the Island Fox native to California’s Channel Islands are showing signs of recovery.
A total of 71,576 species have now been assessed, of which 21,286 are threatened with extinction.

The update highlights serious declines in the population of the Okapi (Okapia johnstoni), a close relative of the giraffe, unique to the rainforests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The species is now Endangered, only one step away from the highest risk of extinction, with numbers dwindling across its range. Poaching and habitat loss, as well as the presence of rebels, elephant poachers and illegal miners, are the principal threats to its survival.

“The Okapi is revered in Congo as a national symbol – it even features on the Congolese franc banknotes,” says Dr Noëlle Kümpel co-chair of the IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group and manager of ZSL’s range-wide okapi conservation project. “Sadly, DRC has been caught up in civil conflict and ravaged by poverty for nearly two decades, leading to widespread degradation of Okapi habitat and hunting for its meat and skin. Supporting government efforts to tackle the civil conflict and extreme poverty in the region are critical to securing its survival.”

According to the update, almost 200 species of bird are now Critically Endangered, facing the highest risk of extinction. The White-winged Flufftail (Sarothrura ayresi), a small, secretive bird which occurs in Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, is the latest species to join this category. Destruction and degradation of its habitat, including wetland drainage, conversion for agriculture, water abstraction, overgrazing by livestock and cutting of marsh vegetation, have driven it to this precarious state. Urgent action is now needed to better understand the species’ ecology and to address these threats.

Although the global population of the Leatherback Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) - the largest of all living turtles – has improved from Critically Endangered to Vulnerable, the species continues to face serious threats at a subpopulation level. Leatherbacks are a single species, globally comprising seven biologically and geographically distinct subpopulations. The Northwest Atlantic Ocean Leatherback subpopulation is abundant and increasing thanks to successful conservation initiatives in the region. In contrast, the East Pacific Ocean subpopulation, which nests along the Pacific coast of the Americas, and the West Pacific Ocean subpopulation, found in Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, are both in severe decline due to extensive egg harvest and incidental capture in fishing gear. Targeted conservation efforts are needed to prevent their collapse.

This IUCN Red List update also brings good news for some of the species assessed. Two species of albatross - one of the most threatened of the planet’s bird families – are now at a lower risk of extinction due to increases in their populations. The Black-browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophrys) has moved from Endangered to Near Threatened and the Black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes) has moved from Vulnerable to Near Threatened. By-catch in fisheries is the main threat to these species.

The Island Fox (Urocyon littoralis), previously Critically Endangered, has also improved in status and is now listed as Near Threatened. Found on six of the California Channel Islands off the coast of southern California, four Island Fox subspecies suffered catastrophic declines in the mid 1990s mainly due to disease and predation by non-native species, such as the Golden Eagle. All four subspecies have now recovered or are approaching recovery. This is mainly due to successful conservation work of IUCN Member the U.S. National Park Service, which included captive breeding, reintroduction, vaccination against canine diseases and relocation of Golden Eagles.

“This IUCN Red List update shows some fantastic conservation successes, which we must learn from, for future conservation efforts,” says Jane Smart, Global Director, IUCN Biodiversity Conservation Group. “However, the overall message remains bleak. With each update, whilst we see some species improving in status, there is a significantly larger number of species appearing in the threatened categories. The world must urgently scale up efforts to avert this devastating trend.”