More than 1 in 4 species assessed face extinction according to the IUCN’s latest Red List of Threatened Species update, though there are some rare success stories that show we can prevent further declines if we put our minds to it.
Of the 112,432 species assessed, 1,840 new species have been added to the catalog of life listed as at risk of extinction, which now shows 30,178 species are at serious risk of disappearing.
For some, it may already be too late. Seventy-three species declined despite conservation efforts, including the Madagascan rousette, a bat endemic to Madagascar that thanks to human hunting has been upgraded from "near threatened" to "endangered", and the Tana River red colobus, a Kenyan primate, already one of the world’s 25 most endangered primates, which has now been updated to “critically endangered” due to habitat loss.
At least three species of birds have been declared officially extinct: the cryptic tree hunter and Alagoas foliage-gleaner have both disappeared from Brazil, and the Hawaiian po’o-uli endemic to Maui. The Spix’s macaw – the brilliant blue bird that inspired the animated movie Rio – has been declared extinct in the wild.
Species that have been added to the list this year include the Mediterranean fan mussel, which has suffered at the hands of a newly identified pathogen that has affected between 80-100 percent of the population. The IUCN said this amounts to a mass mortality event. The world’s largest pseudoscorpion – a whopping 1.5 centimeters (0.6 inches) long – which only lives on the remote Ascension Island in the South Atlantic also entered the list as "endangered" due to invasive species.
This is also the first update where all 826 species of eucalypts (Eucalyptus, Corymbia, and Angophora) have been assessed. Almost a quarter are threatened with extinction. Ninety-eight percent of eucalypts are found in Australia, where at least 134 species have suffered a 30 percent decline, including Eucalyptus moluccana, the sole food source of koalas.
This year the IUCN highlighted the increasing evidence of the effects of climate change. It's been assessing the conservation status of the planet’s species since 1964, so it has plenty of data to draw on. The update revealed 37 percent of Australia’s freshwater fishes are threatened with extinction, 58 percent of which are directly impacted by climate change.
The increased frequency and strength of hurricanes in the Caribbean has led to Dominica’s national bird, the imperial parrot, being upgraded to "critically endangered". Hurricane Maria in 2017 resulted in such high bird mortality it’s thought there are now fewer than 50 left in the wild. The short-tail nurse shark, found in the Indian Ocean, has declined by 80 percent over the last 30 years, affected by both climate change and unmanaged fishing. It is now listed as critically endangered.
There was a glimmer of hope, however, as 10 species were described as conservation success stories with genuine improvements in the status of eight birds and two freshwater fishes.
The flightless Guam rail has become the second bird in history to recover after being declared extinct in the wild. Once widespread, its numbers declined after the brown tree snake was introduced to its habitat. The last wild Guam rail was killed in 1987, but after a 35-year captive breeding program, the bird was reintroduced successfully to the nearby Cocos Island. Another successful breeding program has seen the echo parakeet of Mauritius recover to 750 birds in the wild and has been downgraded to “vulnerable”.
"The recovery of the Guam rail and echo parakeet is fantastic proof of how effective targeted conservation action can be," said Dr Ian Burfield of BirdLife International. "However, it is important to remember that not all species can be brought back from the brink, especially if their natural habitat has been destroyed. The priority should always be conserving habitats to prevent declines and extinctions from happening in the first place.”