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SOS Rhino : In the News : Environment: World On Alert As Over 15,000 Species Face Extinction

Environment: World On Alert As Over 15,000 Species Face Extinction

  November 17, 2004
Posted to the web November 17, 2004

Sonny Inbaraj

Global biodiversity is shrinking at an unprecedented rate and the prognosis given by one of the world's leading conservation bodies, at the opening of a major environment conference here, is alarming.

Over 15,000 animal and plant species face extinction, reveals the World Conservation Union or IUCN in its '2004 Red List of Threatened Species'.

One in three amphibians and almost half of all freshwater turtles are threatened, on top of the one in eight birds and one in four mammals known to be jeopardy, said the IUCN at its 3rd World Conservation Congress being held in the Thai capital from Nov. 17-25.

The global conference brings together 81 states, 114 government agencies, 800 plus non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and some 10,000 scientists and experts from 181 countries and has been billed as the one of biggest environmental meetings in history.

"This sends a very powerful message that conservation is not a marginal issue in the year 2004," said Achim Steiner, director-general of the Geneva-based IUCN. "There has been a record level of interest."

IUCN's 'Red List' is the most comprehensive scientific assessment of species at risk of dying out, and includes concrete measures to slow or reverse their extinction.

The 15,589 species threatened with extinction, although cover just over one percent of the world's described species, includes 12 percent of all bird species, 23 percent of all mammal species, 32 percent of all amphibian species and 34 percent of all gymnosperms (mainly conifers and cycads).

"This is a wake up call for the world," said Steiner.

"Environmentalists have a reputation for presenting doom and gloom scenarios but it is pointless to try and deny what you will find in this 'Red List'," he added. "The evidence presented should make people worry about the future viability of the various ecosystems that we depend on."

There are nine categories in the 'Red List' system: extinct, extinct in the wild, critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable, near threatened, least concern, data deficient and not evaluated. In addition to the 'Red List', the IUCN has also published its Global Species Assessment, which it does every four years.

According to the 2004 assessment, countries with the most threatened and threatened endemic species lie mainly in the continental tropics, while those with the highest proportion of threatened endemics are mainly tropical island nations.

"Australia, Brazil, China, Indonesia and Mexico have particularly large numbers of threatened species," the report pointed out.

It also revealed that Colombia, India, Malaysia, Burma, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, South Africa and the United States have high number of threatened endemics for at least one taxonomic group.

People, either directly or indirectly, are the main reason for most species' declines. Habitat destruction and degradation are the leading threats but other significant pressures include over-exploitation for food, pets, and medicine, introduced species, pollution and disease. Climate change, also, is increasingly recognised as a serious threat.

Among the key findings of the 2004 Global Species Assessment is that future conflicts between the needs of threatened species and rapidly increasing human populations are predicted to occur in Cameroon, Colombia, Ecuador, India, Madagascar, Malaysia, Peru, Philippines, Tanzania and Peru.

The report also named Brazil, Cameroon, China, Colombia, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Madagascar, Peru and the Philippines as countries with a large number of threatened species and unable to financially invest in conservation.

"The world's conservation community has been ignored for far too long by those who are making fundamental economic and political decisions," said IUCN's Steiner. "We are reaching the limits of exploitation and we need to reverse that."

But while most threats to biodiversity are human-driven, human actions alone can prevent many species from becoming extinct, said David Brackett, chair of IUCN's Species Survival Commission.

"There are many examples of species being brought back from the brink, including the southern white rhinoceros," Brackett pointed out.

The southern white rhinoceros that had been fairly widespread throughout Namibia, Bostwana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa early in the 19th century, had by the turn of the 20th century been reduced to two relict populations on the Zimbabwe- Mozambique border and the Umfolozi Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

A conscientious decision had been made on their protection and numbers soon increased over the years from 700 animals in 1960 to over 11,5000 free-ranging southern white rhinos in 2002.

The southern white rhinoceros is now listed as near threatened on the IUCN 'Red List'.

But the IUCN's 'Red List' also demonstrates how little is known about the world's biodiversity.

"Undoubtedly this is an underestimate as many species have not been assessed. In fact only three percent of the world's species have been assessed in this 'Red List'," said Brackett. "Other habitats are also under threat but we know not quite enough of them yet."

"However, the fact that we have many gaps in our knowledge should not be an excuse for inaction," added Brackett. "The 15,589 threatened species on the 'Red List' require urgent conservation attention if they are not to slip further towards extinction."

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