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Nature's backbone is at risk, but hope remains

By

Margaret Coulombe

The most comprehensive assessment of the world’s vertebrates confirms an extinction crisis with one-fifth of species threatened. However, the situation would be worse were it not for current global conservation efforts, according to a study launched Oct. 26 at the 10th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, CBD, in Nagoya, Japan.

The study, published in the online resource Science Express, a web outlet for the international journal Science, used data for 25,000 species from The IUCN (International Union for Conservation Nature) Red List of Threatened Species™, to investigate the status of the world’s vertebrates (mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fishes) and how this status has changed over time. The results show that, on average, 50 species of mammal, bird and amphibian move closer to extinction each year due to the impacts of agricultural expansion, logging, over-exploitation, and invasive alien species.

“The ‘backbone’ of biodiversity is being eroded,” said Edward O. Wilson, the great American ecologist, writer and professor at Harvard University. “One small step up the Red List is one giant leap forward toward extinction. This is just a small window on the global losses currently taking place.”

Southeast Asia has experienced the most dramatic recent losses, largely driven by the planting of export crops, such as oil palm; commercial hardwood timber operations; agricultural conversion to rice paddies; and unsustainable hunting. Parts of Central America, the tropical Andes of South America, and even Australia, also have experienced marked losses, in particular due to the impact of the deadly chytrid fungus on amphibians.

While the study – which includes contributions from ASU conservation biologist Andrew Smith – confirms previous reports of continued losses in biodiversity, it is the first to present clear evidence of the positive impact of conservation efforts around the globe. Results show that the status of biodiversity would have declined by nearly 20 percent if conservation action had not been taken.

“The Red List is the gold standard for determining the threat status of the world’s biota – each species has been reviewed comprehensively by experts through a standardized quantitative process," said Smith, who is a President’s Professor and Parents Professor in the School of Life Sciences, part of ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. "And amazingly, this landmark study is the summation of 25,000 of these efforts from around the world.”

“On the one hand, the results are chilling, documenting a trajectory of decline," Smith said. "But, these findings also demonstrate that when guided by detailed data and supported by adequate financing, conservation of threatened species and their habitats can reverse this trend." Smith is one of 174 authors from 115 institutions in 38 countries who contributed to the study.

In the present study, Smith, who serves as chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Lagomorph Specialist Group (rabbits, hares and pikas), spearheaded the effort to supply data for all 456 Chinese mammals, as well as the 90 species of lagomorphs.

The study highlights 64 mammal, bird and amphibian species that have improved in status due to successful conservation action. This includes three species that were extinct in the wild and have since been reintroduced to nature: the California Condor, Gymnogyps californianus, and the Black-footed Ferret, Mustela nigripes, in the United States, and Przewalski’s Horse, Equus ferus, in Mongolia.

"Arizona is prime habitat for two of the three species, the condor and the black-footed ferret,” Smith said. “Successful reintroduction efforts for the ferret in Arizona are a result of coordinated efforts by the Phoenix Zoo, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Arizona Department of Game and Fish.”

Conservation efforts have been particularly successful at combatting invasive alien species on islands. The global population of Seychelles Magpie-robin, Copsychus sechellarum, increased from fewer than 15 birds in 1965 to 180 in 2006 through control of introduced predators, such as Brown Rat, Rattus norvegicus, and captive-breeding and reintroduction programs. On Mauritius, six bird species have undergone recoveries in status, including the Mauritius Kestrel, Falco punctatus, whose population has increased from just four birds in 1974 to nearly 1,000.

In South America, protected areas and a combination of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the Vicuña Convention helped spark the recovery of the Vicuña Vicugna vicugna. Similarly, legislation enacted to ban commercial whaling has seen the Humpback Whale, Megaptera novaeangliae, move from Vulnerable to Least Concern. Unfortunately, very few amphibians have yet shown signs of recovery, but international efforts are escalating, including a program to reintroduce the Kihansi Spray Toad, Nectophrynoides asperginis, back into the wild in Tanzania.

The authors caution that their study represents only a minimum estimate of the true impact of conservation, highlighting that some 9 percent of threatened species have increasing populations. Their results show that conservation works, given resources and commitment. They also show that global responses will need to be substantially scaled up, because the current level of conservation action is outweighed by the magnitude of threat. In this light, policymakers at the CBD meeting in Nagoya have been calling for a very significant increase in resources – from extremely low current levels – to make the objectives of the convention achievable.

“This is clear evidence for why we absolutely must emerge from Nagoya with a strategic plan of action to direct our efforts for biodiversity in the coming decade” said Julia Marton-Lefèvre, director general of IUCN. “It is a clarion call for all of us – governments, businesses, citizens – to mobilize resources and drive the action required. Conservation does work – but it needs our support, and it needs it fast!”

The paper highlights that the percentage of species threatened among vertebrates ranges from 13 percent  of birds to 41 percent of amphibians. Although the study focused on vertebrates, it also reports on the levels of threat among several other groups assessed for the IUCN Red List, including14 percent of seagrasses, 32 percent of freshwater crayfish, and 33 percent of reef-building corals.

The level of threat among cycads is extremely critical, with 63 percent threatened with extinction. Cycads, the most ancient group of seed plants alive today, are subject to extremely high levels of illegal harvesting and trade, and are in danger of going the same way as the dinosaurs.

Recently, a UN-sponsored study called The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) calculated the cost of losing nature at $2 trillion to $5 trillion per year, predominantly in poorer parts of the world. A recent study found one-fifth of more than 5,000 freshwater species in Africa are threatened, putting the livelihoods of millions of people dependent on these vital resources at risk.

“What is needed going forward is a stronger commitment to the preservation of life on earth, as truly, extinction is forever,” Smith said. Approximately 200 students in the School of Life Sciences’ program in conservation biology are being trained to play an active role in this complex biological, socio-political-economic arena. 

Arizona State University has made substantial contributions toward global understanding of biological diversity. It houses the Global Institute of Sustainability, the International Institute for Species Exploration, the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, the Centers for Biology and Society and Social Dynamics and Complexity, and the Social Insect Research Group, in addition to the School of Life Sciences. ASU scientists contributed in many different ways to the Convention on Biological Diversity, now meeting in Nagoya, Japan. For example, Charles Perrings and Ann Kinzig, both professors in the School of Life Sciences and codirectors of the ecoSERVICES group in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, provided expert analyses concerning the importance of economic roles that species play in nature.

Failure to meet the internationally agreed 2010 target to reduce biodiversity loss does not mean that conservation efforts have been in vain, as this study demonstrates. However, the erosion of biodiversity has reached such dangerous levels that we cannot afford to fail again. Ambitious targets are needed for 2020, and to meet them will require urgent and concerted action on a greatly expanded scale. It is time for the world’s Governments, meeting in Nagoya, to rise effectively to this global challenge.

"While the outlook for many species is still grim, this report is a testament to the real and valuable impact conservation work can have" said Harriet Nimmo, chief executive of Wildscreen, who are working with IUCN to help raise the public profile of the world's threatened species. "We need to urgently address our disconnection from the natural world, and will only succeed in rescuing species from the brink of extinction, if we successfully communicate their plight, significance, value and importance."

Wildscreen’s ARKive project is a unique global initiative, gathering together the very best films and photographs of the world's species into one centralized digital library, to create a stunning audio-visual record of life on Earth. ARKive’s immediate priority is to compile and complete audio-visual profiles for the c. 18,000 animals, plants and fungi featured on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (www.wildscreen.org.uk ; www.arkive.org).

Click here to see global figures from the Red List of Threatened Species. To view more images of the world's threatened species, click here.