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ENVIRONMENT-PORTUGAL: Nearly Half of All Species Under Threat

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Apr 20 2006 (IPS) - The fragmentation and destruction of rural habitats due to the construction of motorways, dams and urban centres, the modernisation of agriculture, depredation by human beings and diseases are the main threats to biodiversity in Portugal.

Nearly half of the vertebrate species in this country are in grave danger, especially the Iberian lynx, the monk seal, the black vulture and the osprey or fish eagle, as well as trout and a species of river eel, which are on the brink of extinction, according to a report published by the state Institute of Nature Conservation (ICN).

These are the main conclusions reached by 180 scientists and compiled in the Libro Vermelho dos Vertebrados de Portugal (“Red Book of Vertebrates of Portugal,”) published by ICN, which will be on sale in bookshops from May.

The Red Book’s authors, who have backgrounds in a variety of scientific fields, warn that “the risk status remains high” for species inhabiting continental Portugal (an area of 92,000 square kilometres) and its Atlantic islands, the Azores and Madeira.

Forty-two percent of the vertebrate species in Portugal are endangered, in particular freshwater and migratory fish species, of which 69 percent are reduced to shoals of such low numbers that they are in danger of dying out.

The Red Book, which was presented to the media on Wednesday Apr. 19, also contains updated information about the risk of extinction faced by other vertebrates, including reptiles, birds and mammals all over the country. It concludes that 19 species have become extinct in Portugal, 17 of them birds.

Among the vanished species are the brown bear, the sturgeon and the peregrine falcon, whilst the osprey or fish eagle is still on the ‘critical list.’ Although only one male osprey was found in Alentejo, in the south of the country, the hope is that an appropriate mate – perhaps overlooked during the census – will turn up.

The report issued a special warning regarding other endangered species, such as the wild rabbit, the fieldmouse and the thrush. Dolphins, meanwhile, face less of a risk, but are still in need of special attention.

But the news wasn’t all bad. The mountain goat, pronounced extinct in 1990, has reappeared in the Peneda-Gerês National Park, thanks to a remarkable effort by the neighbouring Spanish region of Galicia to save the species.

Research was carried out on 512 species, classified according to criteria established in 2001 by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), which brings together 81 countries, 113 government agencies, more than 850 non-governmental organisations and around 10,000 scientists and experts.

The IUCN’s stated mission is “to influence, encourage and assist societies throughout the world to conserve the integrity and diversity of nature, and to ensure that any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable.”

According to the IUCN criteria, overall numbers indicate that, in Portugal, 46 percent of species are not endangered or threatened.

But there are insufficient data on 12 percent of animal species, explained Maria João Cabral, the coordinator of the Red Book.

The remaining 42 percent of species are divided into three risk categories: Critically Endangered, Vulnerable, and Near Threatened.

In general terms, the ICN’s Red Book statistics classify as ‘at risk’ 69 percent of fish species, 38 percent of birds, 32 percent of reptiles, 19 percent of amphibians and 26 percent of mammals.

Maria Elisa Oliveira, coordinator of the research group on amphibians and reptiles, pointed out that although the status of these vertebrates is apparently reassuring, this may not be a faithful reflection of reality, as the IUCN criteria “aren’t easy to apply in these cases, because they were originally conceived for large mammals.”

On the other hand, there are some clear examples of added risk, such as that of the little bustard, a wading bird which was previously not considered to be under threat, but is now included in the Vulnerable category.

Changes like these are sometimes due to greater problems threatening the animals, “but not always,” Maria João Cabral said, explaining that “new evaluation criteria, and increasing knowledge about some species, also contribute to modifications” in status.

This research forms part of Portugal’s contribution to the Millennium Development Goal agreed by the United Nations in 2000, of halting the loss of biodiversity by 2010, Oliveira said, “because evaluating the status of species enables corrective measures to be taken, and the book provides a knowledge base that is a springboard for action.”

The Red Book’s authors acknowledge in parts of the text that there is still much that is unknown about some species, for example bats and marine mammals.

As for the future, the experts recommend establishing a national monitoring system, to update the information on species’ conservation status on an annual basis.

Along these lines, João Menezes, the president of ICN, emphasised that “there are some species still to be evaluated,” but he stated that the Red Books on flora and saltwater fish should be completed next year. He could not say when a similar research report on invertebrates might be expected.

In ICN’s view, these scientific studies that are published as books in non-specialist language are a useful means of alerting people and governments to the dangers related to the loss of biological diversity on the national and international scales, so as to avoid environmental catastrophes.

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