"Gorillas head race to extinction"

The BBC and Reuters (via the New York Times) have stories on the latest report by the World Conservation Union, which is believed to be the largest, most comprehensive assessment of plants and animals. The BBC article adopts a tone of concern, while the Reuters version is anodyne.

According to the World Conservation Union, nearly 16,300 species are in trouble, an increase of 200 in the past year, and lowland gorillas, orangutans, and Galapagos coral have moved on to the so-called Red List, which highlights “critically endangered” species.

As the Reuters story noted:

“It’s a very bad news story,” Jane Smart, head of the conservation group’s species program, said at a briefing. “Our lives are inextricably linked with biodiversity and ultimately its protection is essential for our very survival.”

Extinction rates are now about 100 to 1,000 times higher than normal, and climate change is already affecting biodiversity, endangered species experts at the briefing said

The BBC story is unusually long; below are key sections:

Gorillas, orangutans, and corals are among the plants and animals which are sliding closer to extinction….

The IUCN says there is a lack of political will to tackle the global erosion of nature.

Governments have pledged to stem the loss of species by 2010; but it does not appear to be happening.

“This year’s Red List shows that the invaluable efforts made so far to protect species are not enough,” said the organisation’s director-general, Julia Marton-Lefevre.

“The rate of biodiversity loss is increasing, and we need to act now to significantly reduce it and stave off this global extinction crisis.”

One in three amphibians, one in four mammals, one in eight birds and 70% of plants so far assessed are believed to be at risk of extinction, with human alteration of their habitat the single biggest cause.

The tone of this year’s Red List is depressingly familiar. Of 41,415 species assessed, 16,306 are threatened with extinction to a greater or lesser degree.

The main changes from previous assessments include some of the natural world’s iconic animals, such as the western lowland gorilla, which moves from the Endangered to the Critically Endangered category….

The Sumatran orangutan was already Critically Endangered before this assessment, with numbers having fallen by 80% in the last 75 years.

But IUCN has identified new threats to the 7,300 individuals that remain. Forests are being cleared for palm oil plantations, and habitat is being split up by the building of new roads.

In Borneo, home to the second orangutan species, palm oil plantations have expanded 10-fold in a decade, and now take up 27,000 sq km of the island. Illegal logging reduces habitat still further, while another threat comes from hunting for food and the illegal international pet trade.

So fragmented have some parts of the Bornean forest become that some isolated orangutan populations now number less than 50 individuals, which IUCN notes are “apparently not viable in the long term”.

The great apes are perhaps the most charismatic creatures on this year’s Red List, but the fact they are in trouble has been known for some years. Perhaps more surprising are some of the new additions.

“This is the first time we’ve assessed corals, and it’s a bit worrying because some of them moved straight from being not assessed to being possibly extinct,” said Jean-Christophe Vie, deputy head of IUCN’s species programme….

The most glaring example of a waterborne creature failed by conservation efforts is probably the baiji, the Yangtze river dolphin, which is categorised as Critically Endangered, Possibly Extinct.

This freshwater species appears to have failed in its bid for survival against the destructive tides of fishing, shipping, pollution, and habitat change in its one native river. Chinese media reported a possible sighting earlier this year, but the IUCN is not convinced; with no confirmed evidence of a living baiji since 2002, they believe its time on Earth may well be over….

Many African vultures are new entrants on this year’s list. But birds provide the only notable success, with the colourful Mauritius echo parakeet making it back from Critically Endangered to Endangered.

Intensive conservation work has brought numbers up from about 50 to above 300.

But the gharial, a crocodilian found in the major rivers of India and Nepal, provides a cautionary tale of what can happen when conservation money and effort dry up.

A decade ago, a programme of re-introduction to the wild brought the adult population up from about 180 to nearer 430. Deemed a success, the programme was stopped; numbers are again hovering around 180, and the gharial finds itself once more on the Critically Endangered list.

IUCN says that it is not too late for many of these species; that they can be brought back from the brink.

It is something that the world’s governments have committed to, vowing in the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity “to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level”.

“Governments know they are going to fail to reach that target,” said Jean-Christophe Vie, “and not just in terms of a few species – the failure is really massive.

“We know that it is possible to reverse the trend, but the causes are so huge and massive and global, and there is still a lack of attention to the crisis that biodiversity faces.”

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