As the World Scrambles to Halt Biodiversity Loss, ‘Things Are Getting Worse’

As the World Scrambles to Halt Biodiversity Loss, ‘Things Are Getting Worse’

More than one quarter of the more than 150,000 species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species are threatened with extinction

The dugong is a marine mammal (and relative of the manatee) found in the Indian and western Pacific Oceans. Credit: Ahmed Shawky

The future of Earth’s biodiversity looks grim. The threat to biodiversity is posed by a variety of factors, including pollution, disease, habitat loss, and climate change. Of the more than 150,000 species evaluated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN’s) Red List of Threatened Species, “over a quarter are threatened with extinction,” says Craig Hilton-Taylor, who heads the IUCN Red List Unit. “The trend on Red List is that things get worse .”

The IUCN announced the latest updates to the list on Friday, including 22 species whose conservation status declined. The announcement highlighted abalones, dugongs, and other marine creatures.

The updates come during crucial international negotiations in Montreal to draft a global agreement aimed at protecting biodiversity and reversing its decline by 2030, akin to the Paris climate accord that set goals for reducing greenhouses gas emissions and limiting global warming. Hilton-Taylor states that the climate crisis often gets overlooked in the context of Earth’s rapidly disappearing species. However, both crises can be addressed together.

The Red List is a global network of thousands of researchers who assess the risk to each species. These assessments are then combined into a ranking that includes species still living in the wild as “critically endangered” and “least concern”. Hilton-Taylor explains that the list does not have legal weight but can be used to “first call for conservation action” by governments and conservation groups to help them draft conservation plans.

The abalone is a species of marine mollusk that is widely considered a seafood delicacy. Nearly 40 percent of the world’s 54 abalone species are now threatened with extinction, primarily because of unsustainable harvesting and poaching, the IUCN says. These animals are now in worse shape due to pollution, disease, and heat waves from the oceans that have been exacerbated by climate changes.

Another ocean-dweller, the dugong-a marine mammal that is closely related to the manatee-has also seen their situation worsen. The population off the coast of East Africa is now considered critically endangered, with fewer than 250 mature individuals remaining in the wild. The endangered status of the New Caledonia dugong population, a French territory in South Pacific, is currently being considered. Both populations are at risk from injuries sustained in boat strikes, as well as oil and gas extraction in East Africa, and poaching in New Caledonia.

The IUCN also highlighted the pillar coral, which can be found in the Caribbean. Its population has declined by more than 80 percent across most of its range since 1990, and it has moved from vulnerable to critically endangered. The highly contagious stony tissue loss disease, which has been endemic in the last four years, is a matter of grave concern. According to Hilton-Taylor, corals can be more vulnerable to diseases like stony coral tissue loss disease due to rising ocean temperatures and pollution.

There were some rays of hope in the updates. Seven species saw an improvement in their status. According to Hilton-Taylor, the Yosemite Toad went from being endangered to vulnerable because of a comprehensive conservation plan that included several government agencies as well as local landholders. The inclusion of local communities was also key to the Australasian Bitten, a species of bird, moving from vulnerable to endangered. He says that the bird thrives in wetlands and conservationists in Australia worked closely with local rice farmers in order to make their fields more friendly to the species.

These successes demonstrate that well-designed conservation plans, which involve local communities and have sufficient resources, can make a difference in conserving species declines. Hilton-Taylor says. He hopes that the Montreal agreement to protect biodiversity, which was negotiated this month, will make it possible to do so on a larger scale. He says that a global plan is needed to protect the earth’s life. It must be ambitious, bold, and have measurable targets .

One such target being considered at the current Montreal negotiations is protecting 30 percent of the planet’s lands and oceans by 2030. In a statement issued by the nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Society, its vice president of international policy Susan Lieberman said that in order for the negotiations to succeed, “governments must commit to: conserving and protecting ecological integrity and highly intact ecosystems (from forests to coral reefs); equitably protecting and conserving at least 30% of land and ocean by 2030; and to eliminating exploitation, trade and use of wildlife that is illegal, unsustainable, or that poses a risk of pathogen spillovers to humans, wildlife, or other animals.”

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    Andrea Thompson, an associate editor at Scientific American, covers sustainability. Follow Andrea Thompson on Twitter Credit: Nick Higgins

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