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BIODIVERSITY: Mammals Face Extinction Crisis

Alejandro Kirk* - TerraViva/IPS

BARCELONA, Oct 7 2008 (IPS) - One in four mammals on Earth is at risk of disappearing forever, according to the new "Red List of Threatened Species" released by the Geneva-based International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on Monday.

The Caspian seal population has shrunk by 90 percent over the last 100 years due to hunting and habitat loss. Credit: Public Domain

The Caspian seal population has shrunk by 90 percent over the last 100 years due to hunting and habitat loss. Credit: Public Domain

According to the survey, at least 76 mammals have become extinct since the year 1500. No fewer than 1,141 of the 5,487 mammal species on Earth are currently endangered. With insufficient data for another 836 mammals, the proportion of threatened mammals could even be as high as 36 percent.

"Within our lifetime hundreds of species could be lost as a result of our own actions, a frightening sign of what is happening to the ecosystems where they live," warned Julia Marton-Lefèvre, IUCN director general.

The main threat to mammals comes from the loss of their habitat due to subsistence agriculture, which is quickly degrading forests and soils in tropical developing countries. Up to 40 percent of the planet's mammals are in danger as a result of this poverty-related cause and it "is most extreme in Central and South America, West, East and Central Africa, Madagascar, and in South and Southeast Asia", IUCN says.

As the first such comprehensive survey since 1996, the list focuses on mammals, but it also includes nearly 45,000 species of all kinds, of which almost 17,000 are threatened with extinction, Marton-Lefèvre said at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Barcelona.

Alejandro Kirk interviews Holly Dublin, IUCN Species Commission.

With a population decline of 60 percent over the last 10 years caused by a cancer epidemic, the Tasmanian devil is one example that moved from threat category "Least Concern" to "Endangered". Both the fishing cat and the Caspian seal – whose population shrunk by 90 percent over the last 100 years due to hunting and the loss of habitat – were reclassified from "Vulnerable" to "Endangered".

In total, almost 450 mammals are now flagged as "Endangered" – a 30 percent increase compared to 1996.

The 188 mammals classified as "Critically Endangered" – the highest threat category – include the Iberian Lynx whose total population has decreased to 84-143 adults.

Cuba's little earth hutia – which has not been observed for almost four decades now – is among the list of "Critically Endangered Possibly Extinct", consisting of 30 mammals for which any conservation efforts may come too late.

According to the Red List, only two major groups of animal species – insects and molluscs – have seen a smaller increase in endangered species than mammals over the last 12 years. For all other major groups – birds, reptiles, amphibians, fishes and plants – the situation has worsened even more dramatically since 1996. However, only birds, mammals and amphibians have been assessed completely by ICUN so far.

"We now know what species are threatened, what the threats are and where – we have no more excuses to watch from the sidelines," said Jane Smart, head of IUCN Species Programme. "The longer we wait, the more expensive it will be to prevent future extinctions."

Indeed, the recent Red List shows that conservation and prevention are possible: Five percent of currently threatened mammals have shown signs of recovery in the wild.

IUCN director-general Julia Morton-Lefèvre voices her views on new President, private sector and political leadership

The wild horse, for example, has recovered from "Extinct" in 1996 to "Critically Endangered" today due to a successful reintroduction in Mongolia in the early 1990s. The population of African elephants has significantly risen in southern and eastern Africa – compensating decreases elsewhere – and the species has moved to "Near Threatened" from "Vulnerable".

"The Red List is for all to use and vote to the right people," said Smart, when asked about governments' and corporations' responsibilities to protect animal habitats, a policy assessment not included in the Red List.

Holly Dublin, chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, stressed that, "We have a world economy driving [the planet] against conservation." She noted that the World Bank is gradually including clauses to protect forests and protected areas from degradation among its conditions to provide loans to developing countries.

Speaking to IPS, Dublin later conceded that such an approach, while helping to protect habitats, also adds to the package of conditionalities imposed on developing countries struggling to achieve living standards similar to those of developed countries.

In this regard, she added, the world financial crisis unleashed by the U.S. credit markets might have taught "a lesson or two" on the need to dramatically change lifestyles if the human race does not want to become redundant.

*With additional reporting by Wolfgang Kerler at the United Nations.

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