May 01, 2006
Natural world on red alert
By Devika Bhat
A report compiled over two years details the ever-increasing species
of flora and fauna facing extinction
THE polar bear and hippopotamus have joined the list of species
facing the threat of extinction, according to a report to be released
More than 16,000 species of animals, birds, fish and plants are
registered as under serious threat of becoming extinct on the Red
List of Threatened Species compiled by the World Conservation Union
(IUCN). The number is up from just over 15,500 last year.
The study, which examines the status of more than 40,000 species most
in need of conservation attention, says that one in three amphibians,
a quarter of the world's coniferous trees, one in eight birds and one
in four mammals are under considerable risk. Of 547 shark and ray
species listed, 20 per cent are considered to be threatened with
The report, compiled over two years by scientists from around the
world, provides one of the most comprehensive indications of progress
in meeting targets to reduce the rate at which species become
endangered. The increase in the latest list is partly because more
species have been examined than before.
Among the worst affected are polar bears. The report says that the
impact of climate change is being increasingly felt in the Arctic,
where the level of sea ice in the summer is expected to decrease by
50 to 100 per cent over the next 50 to 100 years. As a result, the
polar bear population is predicted to decline by more than 30 per
cent in the next 45 years, and the species has moved up the IUCN list
to be classified as "vulnerable", threatened with global extinction.
More unexpected is the decline of the common hippo, listed as under
threat for the first time, largely because of a dramatic fall in
numbers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
In 1994 the DRC came only second to Zambia in hippo populations �
with 30,000, compared with Zambia's 40,000 � but numbers have since
plummeted by 95 per cent, primarily because of unregulated hunting of
them for meat and ivory from their teeth. The lesser-known pygmy
hippo, a forest creature which exists in small numbers in West
Africa, has similarly been affected by illegal logging and loss of
Achim Steiner, directorgeneral of the IUCN, said: "The 2006 IUCN Red
List shows a clear trend: biodiversity loss is increasing, not
Several marine groups have been included in this year's list. The
angel shark has been declared extinct in the North Sea and the common
skate upgraded from "endangered" to "critically endangered". Both
were once commonplace on European fish counters. Freshwater fish
appear to fare little better, having experienced some of the most
drastic falls in numbers, with 56 per cent of 252 endemic freshwater
Mediterranean fish at risk of extinction.
Mark Wright, science adviser for the World Wide Fund for Nature, said
that the study's findings were "sad but not surprising". "For
freshwater species, not only do they face loss of habitat, but
there's also the issue of water pollution and poor management of
water systems," he said. "In Africa, governments understandably want
to develop and improve their countries, but this must be done in a
way that is environmentally sustainable.
"Polar bears face the double problem of losing their natural habitat
through climate change as well as being at the top of the food chain
and hence carrying a high toxic load."
Mr Wright acknowledged international efforts to accommodate
conservation issues. "We have seen some governments who are keen to
improve their approaches environmentally and recognise that it is to
the benefit of their economies if they act now," he said.
Desert wildlife, including various types of gazelle, also features in
the list because of the threat of hunting and loss of habitat.
Additionally, several plants from the Mediterranean area, one of the
world's 34 biodiversity hotspots, are listed, faced with growing
pressures from intensive agriculture and mass tourism.
However, some conservation projects have appeared to yield results.
The Abbott's booby, a seabird found in Australia and listed as
critically endangered in 2004, has since started to recover, as have
the Indian vulture and Mekong catfish.
LEVELS OF DANGER
The World Conservation Union's Red List of Threatened Species
contains information on the global status of 40,000 species, keeping
track of those that are most at risk
Threat categories range from "least concern", "near
threatened", "vulnerable", "endangered", "critically
endangered", "extinct in the wild" to "extinct"
The list was first conceived in 1963 and is used by government
agencies, wildlife departments and conservation-related NGOs
The number of species declared extinct is 784, with 65 found only in
captivity or cultivation
There are thought to be about 15 million species on the planet, with
up to1.8 million known today
Its results show that Australia, Brazil, China and Mexico are key
areas containing threatened species
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