Biology

The IUCN Red List: Conservation of Endangered Species

What is sometimes informally referred to as the endangered species list is actually called the Red List of Threatened Species. The organization responsible for this list is the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Global in scope, this continent-spanning organization has several branches whose focuses revolve around the preservation of nature and natural resources. Researchers and experts in several fields come together to produce actionable information that can then be used for education and advocacy.

Siberian Amur tigers are endangered species: Posed here are Mama and baby cub. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Red List

Over 160 specialist groups cooperate in the IUCN Species Survival Commission. The groups that make up this collective work toward different yet interrelated goals, such as studying and cataloging the biodiversity of specific ecosystems and reintroducing endangered species back into their former habitats. One of the Species Survival Commission’s most important contributions to international conservation efforts is providing data for the Red List, a report on the status of a wide range of species which is updated at least twice every year. This list includes data on not just animals, but plants and fungi too.

In a way, the Red List can be thought of as a detailed report card on the conservation status of the 116,00 plus species covered in it. This includes information like where species live, how many there are, what role they play economically, pressures on their continued existence, and advice on alleviating said pressures. The Red List puts information in the hands of conservationists, advocacy groups, government actors, and business leaders, allowing them to make informed decisions. Without knowledge of conditions on the ground and how best to address them it is difficult to craft and implement beneficial policies and regulations.

Barbary ape – endangered species

IUC Red List Designations

There are seven categories for the conservation status of species on the Red List: least concern, near threatened, vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered, extinct in the wild, and extinct. These designations are determined through interpreting data from researchers out in the field. General criteria are used to place a species on this categorical scale, with each level having lower thresholds. In conservation data, lower numbers often indicate negative outcomes, such as shrinking population size or habitat acreage. Probability of extinction and the rate at which a population shrinks are also looked at when designating a species.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Least concern and near threatened go to species that will likely continue to be monitored but are not top priority when it comes to conservation efforts. Vulnerable, endangered, and critically endangered receive a bulk of the attention from those groups and individuals concerned with preserving nature. Extinct in the wild is used for species that have not been spotted in their natural habitats for an extended period of time, but continue to live in captivity or cultivation. Extinct designates those species that have died out entirely. The goal of conservation is to get as many species into the least concern category, or as near as possible, by clearing away threats to population recovery.

Challenges for Conservationists

Loss of Habitat

Loss of habitat is one of the Red List’s primary indicators. This can happen naturally over time, but most activism and legislation is focused on human driven effects, like climate change. Plants, animals, and fungi that require cooler temperatures to mature and reproduce are threatened by the global rise of average temperatures. Beyond climate change, human development also directly endangers several species. Deforestation is a prime example, where species that call jungles and rainforests home are pushed toward extinction as trees are cleared for logging and agricultural use.

Genetic Variance in Threatened Species

Another marker scientists pay close attention to is the reduction of genetic variance in a species. As populations shrink, inbreeding becomes more common, which leads to offspring with a smaller gene pool. One of the biggest risks of this is a decreased ability to resist new diseases. When a species has a wider genome they are more likely to survive outside pressures, such as viruses, as there is a greater chance certain members of the group will have genetic immunity or resistance to specific diseases. If a species becomes too homogenous, then something that kills one of them has the potential to kill all of them.

Food Chain Disruptions

To determine where animals land on the Red List, many scientist also monitor food chains and disruptions therein. Broadly speaking, the field of ecology is centered around the relationships between different organisms within one or more ecosystems. The blue whale and krill are quite different creatures with separate needs, though through the food chain their fates are tied. If krill become endangered or extinct due to rising ocean temperatures or the acidification of seawater, it would be a major blow to every blue whale population. Honey bees require flowers for their pollen and nectar to produce food for their hives, and in turn many species of flower depend on bees for pollination. Whether or not species are symbiotic, they are often interdependent, and these interdependencies are chains that often link most if not all species within an ecosystem. The extinction or forced migration of just one species can cause an entire habitat to collapse. This is why ecologists and other scientists track as many species as possible and try to document the various ways their lives overlap.    

Both flowers and our beloved bees rely on each other to preserve our ecosystems.

Optimism for Conservationists

Unlike the prior three examples, not every roadblock that conservationists face is completely negative. Sometimes positive situations can present challenges of their own. For instance, when it comes to fundraising, not every animal receives the same amount of attention. When looking at the fundraising goals of conservationist organizations the world over, one will find they are several billion dollars short annually. What money they do manage to take in from governments and private donations is not always evenly distributed. Animals are much easier to raise funds for than plants or fungi, though even then people tend to play favorites.

This little guy here? The name’s Rhodotus palmatus, a fungal species listed as critically endangered, endangered, or near threatened in 12 countries. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Calling for Equal Attention for All Threatened Species

Large and cute animals like elephants and pandas tend to draw in the most attention. Without proper advertising on the part of fundraisers, those giving donations tend to ignore less aesthetically appealing animals such as rodents, bats, and snakes. Oftentimes these smaller and less cute creatures play a more important role in their ecosystems than their larger counterparts. Ultimately, organizations choose how they distribute donations. Just because rhinos and gorillas dominate in the public consciousness does not mean that scientists forget about or neglect endangered salamanders and fish. By tackling conservation challenges with an ecological approach, those working to preserve nature and its resources are able to allocate their limited resources equitably.

COVID-19’s Impact on the Conservation of Threatened Species

And of course gathering data and putting donations to use has become that much more difficult due to COVID-19. With social distancing an imperative, fieldwork has gained another dimension of difficulty for those who research in teams. Some of this work is done in spacious environments, but not every habitat provides the luxury of spreading out. Additionally, with global travel restrictions, moving personnel and supplies around has become more daunting. Attention is also in shorter supply because of the virus. Governments and relevant officials ought to be focusing on the pandemic, but that does not make the concerns of conservationists any less pressing. Due to an unavoidable decrease in awareness, causes that need immediate attention might go unaddressed in the short-term.

Polar bear cub says, “Thank you for reading our article!”

Works Cited

“About – Species”. iucn.org, IUCN, http://www.iucn.org/theme/species/about, Accessed April 28 2020

“Background & History”. iucnredlist.org, IUCN, http://www.iucnredlist.org/about/background-history, Accessed April 28 2020

“Endangered species”. RESOURCE LIBRARY | ENCYCLOPEDIC ENTRY, National Geographic, http://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/endangered-species/, Accessed April 28 2020

“The Species Survival Commission”. iucn.org, IUCN, http://www.iucn.org/species/about/species-survival-commission, Accessed April 28 2020

Veríssimo, Diogo. Bob Smith. “When It Comes to Conservation, Are Ugly Animals a Lost Cause?”. Smithsonianmag.com, Smithsonian Magazine, June 27 2017, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/are-ugly-animals-lost-cause-180963807/, Accessed April 28 2020

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