Red list: thousands of species at risk of extinction due to human activity

Unsustainable farming, fishing and climate change has intensified the struggle for survival among vulnerable animals and crops, says IUCN at the release of its latest list of endangered species
Justin McCurry The Guardian 5 Dec 17;

Thousands of animal species are at critical risk of going extinct due to unsustainable farming and fishing methods and climate change, a conservation group has warned as it released the latest red list of endangered species.

In a rare piece of good news, the International Union for Conservation of Nature [IUCN] praised New Zealand for its success in turning around the fortunes of two species of kiwi, prompting it to upgrade them from endangered to vulnerable.

The struggle for survival among at-risk animals – and now crops – has intensified as a result of rising human populations, economic development and drastic changes in the natural environment caused by global warming, the IUCN said.

Craig Hilton-Taylor, who heads the group’s red list unit, said species were going extinct at a faster rate than at any time in human history.

But he drew encouragement from New Zealand’s example. “It’s all a rather sad picture, but the red list also gives us hope and shows us that conservation can work,” he told reporters at the list’s publication in Tokyo.

The IUCN aims to cover 160,000 species by the end of the decade, he added.

The group, which received funding for this year’s list from the Japanese automaker Toyota, assessed the status of 91,523 species, of which 25,821 are threatened, 866 are extinct and 69 extinct in the wild. It said 11,783 species are vulnerable, 8,455 are endangered and 5,583 critically endangered.

Among the most prominent species now regarded as endangered are the Irrawaddy dolphin and finless porpoise found in parts of southeast Asia.

The group blamed their plight on human activity, including the use of fishing nets. “Gillnets hang like curtains of death across rivers and trap everything that comes into contact with them,” said Hilton-Taylor.

In addition, Australia’s western ringtail possum slipped from vulnerable to critically endangered after its population plunged by 80% over the past decade.

Once widespread in the peppermint and eucalyptus forests of Western Australia, the animal can now be found only in a few fragmented habitats and is prone to heat stress at temperatures above 35C (95F) – an increasingly common phenomenon in that part of the country.

The IUCN said three reptile species on Christmas Island, an Australian territory just south of Indonesia, had gone extinct in the wild: the whiptail-skink, the blue-tailed skink and Lister’s gecko.

“We’re not 100% sure of the cause but it is almost certainly linked to the presence of invasive species” such as the yellow crazy ant, Hilton-Taylor said.

The Okarito kiwi and the northern brown kiwi, however, have mounted a modest recovery thanks to conservation work and a campaign to control predators such as rats, stoats and possums.

More than 40 species of New Zealand birds have already died out and many others remain threatened, including the kiwi.

The example of the Okarito and northern brown kiwi showed “conservation can and does work,” Hilton-Taylor said, adding that the population of the former has risen from 160 in 1995 to about 400-450 now.

“Government agencies and community groups in New Zealand came together and really turned things around,” he said.

Three species of wild rice, along with two of wild wheat and 17 types of wild yam were listed as threatened due to deforestation and urban expansion, coupled with the pressures created by intensive agriculture.

“The importance of food security unites the entire Asian continent,” said Naohisa Okuda, director of the biodiversity policy division at Japan’s environment ministry.

“We should be very concerned about the survival of these crops, because their loss could jeopardise the bowls of rice we eat in the future.”

IUCN Red List: Wild crops listed as threatened
Helen Briggs BBC News 5 Dec 17;

Wild relatives of modern crops deemed crucial for food security are being pushed to the brink of extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

More than 20 rice, wheat and yam plants have been listed as threatened on the latest version of the IUCN's Red list.

The wild plants are being squeezed out by intensive farming, deforestation and urban sprawl, say scientists.
Modern crops can be crossbred with their wild cousins to safeguard foods.

''To lose them would be a disaster,'' said Dr Nigel Maxted of the University of Birmingham, who is co-chair of the IUCN's specialist group on crop wild relatives.

''It would be much more difficult to maintain food security without them.''

Insurance policy

Commercial crops have lost genetic diversity. They are vulnerable to the effects of climate change, which may bring drought, diseases and new pests.

Work is under way to breed new varieties of grains, cereals and vegetables by crossing them with tough, wild species that can grow in a range of habitats, such as mountains, deserts or salt marshes.

These efforts rely on protecting plants related to modern food crops at the sites where they grow in the wild as well as preserving their seeds in gene banks.

The first systematic assessment of wild wheat, rice and yam has led to the listing of three types of rice, two types of wheat (used to make bread) and 17 types of yam.

Marie Haga is Executive Director of The Crop Trust, an international organisation that is working to safeguard crop diversity.

She welcomed the inclusion of wild crops on the Red List.

''The IUCN has high legitimacy among decision makers and the general population, so it's extremely interesting that they are putting these wild relatives on their Red List,'' she told BBC News.

''I hope that will contribute to raising the awareness even further that we've got to take action, and we've got to take action now.''

Wild relatives of crops act as ''an insurance policy for the world'', she added.

Most of the wild rice crops that are threatened with extinction grow in South East Asia, while a few are found in Africa. The wild wheat plants that are of concern are found mainly in the Near and Middle East, including war-torn areas that are off-limits to conservationists.

Yams feed around 100 million people in Africa alone. Paul Wilkin of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, said conservation work is being undertaken to make sure that wild yam plants are available to provide food and medicines worldwide, now and in the future.

''They will also be sources of key traits to breed improved, future-proof crop varieties,'' he said.

"These assessments enable the most threatened species of yams and other crop wild relatives to be prioritised effectively for conservation actions."

The economic value of crop wild relatives is put at US$115bn per year to the global economy.
Other Red List entries

In addition to wild crops, the IUCN highlighted other flora and fauna that have been added to the latest update of the Red List:

*Entanglement with fishing nets and overfishing have caused steep declines in the Irrawaddy dolphin and finless porpoise, with both species moving from Vulnerable to Endangered

*Three reptiles found only on Australia's Christmas Island have been declared extinct in the wild

*Australia's western ringtail possum is in dramatic decline due to the increasingly hot and dry climate in Western Australia and predation from red foxes and feral cats

(A third of snakes and lizards native to Japan are listed as Threatened, due to habitat loss, collection for the pet trade and the introduction of predators such as the Japanese weasel.

But there is a success story; kiwis in New Zealand are recovering thanks to conservation efforts.

An effort to wipe out predators such as stoats and ferrets, as well as raising chicks in captivity to release in the wild, has boosted the number of two species of New Zealand's native bird.