The IUCN updates its Red List: almost 40,000 species are now endangered

Tuna recovers while the Komodo dragon falls into the endangered list due to climate change. Sharks and rays are also at risk because of overfishing.

It’s perhaps one of the most highly anticipated documents for conservationists, although we should all be interested in its findings. The Red List, published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), is the most extensive and comprehensive inventory of the risk of extinction for species globally. In Marseilles, during the World Conservation Congress, the IUCN presented an updated version of the Red List: of 138,374 species, 38,543 are endangered.

IUCN Red List: tuna on the rise

While habitats and ecosystems are clearly under pressure, there is also some good news linked to conservation projects across the world. The seven species of tuna that are most extensively fished for commercial purposes have been reassessed, and four of them showed signs of recovery thanks to those countries that have enforced more sustainable fishing quotas. Thanks to the availability of new data and ways of assessing fish stocks, it has been found, for example, that the Pacific bluefin tuna (Thunnus orientalis) has gone from the Vulnerable (VU) to the Near-Threatened (NT) category. Nevertheless, this species is still severely impoverished, at less than 5 per cent of its original biomass. Meanwhile, Albacore tuna (Thunnus alalunga) and Yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) have both moved to the Least Concern category.

tuna
The seven most widely fished species of tuna have been reassessed, with four showing signs of recovery © Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

“The results that have just been published on the status of commercial tuna highlight the fact that sustainable fishing is possible,” stated Beth Polidoro, associate professor at Arizona State University. “However, as highlighted by certain stocks that aren’t doing very well, sustainable management requires better data collection, reporting efforts, and more intelligent collection technology”.

In fact, despite the global improvement, many tuna stocks remain severely impoverished at the regional level. While, on the one hand, the largest eastern population of Atlantic bluefin tuna, found in the Mediterranean, has increased by at least 22 per cent over the past four decades, the smallest native population in the western Atlantic, which breeds in the Gulf of Mexico, has fallen by more than half over the same period. Meanwhile, yellowfin tuna continues to be overfished in the Indian Ocean.

Komodo dragons, rays, and sharks are at risk

Almost 28 per cent of the species assessed by the IUCN are threatened, including 33 per cent of mammals, 41 per cent of amphibians, 14 per cent of birds, 33 per cent of reef corals, and 34 per cent of conifers. The update of the Komodo dragon’s (Varanus komodoensis) status to Endangered is especially indicative. This animal is the largest living lizard, the last relict of a once-greater population of Varanids that used to live across Indonesia and Australia. The dragon is increasingly threatened by the effects of climate change. The increase in global temperatures and rising sea levels are predicted to reduce the livable habitat of the Komodo dragon by at least 30 per cent over the next 45 years. Furthermore, while the sub-population in the Komodo National Park is currently stable and well-protected, the animals living outside the protected areas on Flores are threatened by significant habitat loss due to ongoing human activities.

“Komodo dragons were introduced to the British public for the first time by David Attenborough only 60 years ago, in the iconic BBC series Zoo Quest for a Dragon,” said Andrew Terry, director of conservation at the Zoological Society of London. “The idea that these prehistoric animals are one step closer to extinction partially because of climate change is terrifying and a further appeal to nature around which to focus all decisions on the eve of COP26 in Glasgow”.

Sharks and rays are also among the most at-risk species: 37 per cent are now threatened, proving how a large part of the world’s seas are lacking effective management measures. All the threatened species of sharks and rays and overfished, with 31 per cent further impacted by habitat loss and degradation, and 10 per cent affected by climate change.

californian condor
Californian condor populations are recovering thanks to conservation projects © David McNew/Getty Images

Green Status: the evolution of the Red List to reward conservation efforts

In July this year, Conservation Biology magazine published a new IUCN standard for conservation, known as the Green Status. This is an integration to the Red List, adopted to measure how close a species is to being ecologically functional and how much it has recovered thanks to the action of conservation. ” With the IUCN Green Status, we now have a complementary tool that allows us to track species recovery and dramatically improve our understanding of the state of the world’s wildlife,” said Molly Grace of the University of Oxford, primary author of the study. “The IUCN Green Status of Species provides evidence that conservation works, giving cause for optimism and impetus for stronger action”. The 181 species presented in the paper include the Californian condor (Gymnogyps californianus), confirming that rigorous conservation work prevented its extinction. The Green Status list also includes East Asian mangroves, the pink pigeon, and the grey wolf, all of whose populations appear to be headed towards recovery.

This is a new way of communicating and measuring conservation, not only by assessing risks but by monitoring successes and the real positive outcomes of conservation projects. Because optimism is needed too.

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