Thursday, 27 August 2015

Red or dead

For work reasons, I've been spending a lot of time on the IUCN Red List website this year. In fact Firefox tells me it's my seventh favourite website. I urge you to check it out, it's an amazing resource. You can look up any species, and it will tell you things about the conservation status of that species. This info is lengthy and detailed for well-known, high profile animals, much briefer for obscure ones (as you'd expect). But the main thing that it does is tell you a) what conservation status the species has and b) whether its numbers are increasing, decreasing, or stable.

The conservation statuses (stati?) that you'll find start at Least Concern (not in danger of extinction, so don't worry), and finish at Extinct (hmmm, too late to worry now). In between are increasing degrees of worrisome - Near Threatened; Vulnerable; Endangered; Critically Endangered; Extinct in the wild. (There is also Data Deficient, for those where we Just Don't Know, at least not yet - most of these are likely to turn out to be endangered to some extent though, because if they were Least Concern they would probably be reasonably easy to find and study.)

These are global statuses (stati just doesn't sound right). So species that we know to be threatened in the UK are in general rated Least Concern because, world-wide, they are not in serious trouble (though they may be heading that way). So if I put in... let's see... Turtle Dove, I get Least Concern. But also 'decreasing'. Under 'Justification', there's an explanation that, although the species is declining, it still has a very large population, a very extensive global range, and it isn't declining fast enough for us to panic. Maybe give it a few more years...

There are a handful of birds on the British List that are threatened on a global scale though, and their names may surprise you. How about Velvet Scoter? Not as common as Common Scoter, but still easy enough to find among winter scoter flocks off our coast, right? But the IUCN rates it as Endangered, because 'it is estimated to be undergoing a very rapid population decline.' It's a similar story for Long-tailed Duck. Even though this is a very widespread species with a large world population (it breeds right across the far north of North America as well as Eurasia), it's Vulnerable, because 'an apparently drastic decline detected in the wintering population in the Baltic Sea since at least the early 1990s implies that the global population will undergo at least a rapid decline over three generations (1993-2020), even when factoring in uncertainty regarding the sizes and trends of other populations'.

As far as I know, there's only one Critically Endangered bird that regularly visits Britain - the Balearic Shearwater. Critically Endangered means 'at very high risk of extinction in the wild', and many species in this category probably ARE extinct already. It's as bad as things can get before you resort to rounding up what's left of the wild population and starting a captive breeding regime... and I really can't see that working for a shearwater. I noticed on Facebook that several of them were seen offshore in Kent today - can they really be in that much trouble? Well, it turns out that yes, they can. In not many years' time we won't be seeing Balearic Shearwaters off Kent or off anywhere else, unless we take drastic and immediate action to tackle the many threats they face.

We all know tigers are in a desperate predicament, mainly thanks to illegal deliberate killing. If I look up the genus Panthera, sure enough, there it is, Panthera tigris, Tiger, Endangered, decreasing. But my search brings up the other members of the genus too, and not only are they ALL decreasing, they are ALL also classed as at risk of extinction. Panthera leo, Lion, Vulnerable. Panthera onca, Jaguar, Near Threatened. Panthera pardus, Leopard, Near Threatened. And Panthera uncia, Snow Leopard, Endangered. That's ALL the species of true big cats in the world, at real risk of extinction in the wild. Scary.

These are animals we all know about. What about the ones we don't? Key in a more obscure genus name and there's a very high chance that you'll discover an endangered species that you've never heard of. I just tried it with Sympetrum, darter dragonflies, and found the Critically Endangered Sympetrum evanescens, known only from two unprotected square kilometres in Venezuela and not observed with certainty since 1993. Its species name means 'fading and gradually vanishing from sight' - how sadly appropriate. And then I tried some hawkmoth genera and stumbled upon an Endangered species native to Hawaii, called Tinostoma smaragditis. This, I discovered, has the best English name of any animal ever - it's called <drumroll> the Fabulous Green Sphinx Of Kauai. How is it possible I've never heard of it? (It is just as stunning as it sounds.) And yet it's in what sounds like an even more dire situation than Sympetrum evanescens - it's been recorded a total of 15 times over a period of 110 years, it has no legal protection whatsoever, and collectors are desperate to get their hands on pinned specimens.

Exploring the Red List does bring a fair few depressing moments like this. On the other hand, it is quite cheering to see that the vast majority of species are classed as Least Concern, but the number that are Least Concern and stable, or Least Concern and increasing, is very much lower. One species that does fit the latter description will show up if you key in the genus name Homo. Yes, our own species has a page on the IUCN Red List website, and reading it elicits a rather unsettling metaphysical twinge. Homo sapiens, Human, is given the following justification for its rating of Least Concern: 'The species is very widely distributed, adaptable, currently increasing, and there are no major threats resulting in an overall population decline.' My favourite bit on the page is this line from the Range Description section: 'A small group of humans has been introduced to space, where they inhabit the International Space Station.'

Actually, there's something quite soothing about reading the page, with its objectively phrased, passive-voiced run-down of the status of humans on earth. It's very easy to feel terrible about the destructive impact of our species on almost all the world's other species, and we really should feel terrible about it as that ought to motivate us to do something about it, and we must do something about it. But it also doesn't hurt to remember that we got into this pickle because our species is just another animal, doing what animals do and making the most of all opportunities available, in order to thrive and proliferate and spread. We just happen to be terribly, disastrously good at it.

An ETA. I was reading this interesting blog about shooting and conservation just now, and learned the utterly gobsmacking fact that the European Rabbit, a species I'd have thought to be as Least Concern as it's possible to be, is in fact Near Threatened, following lengthy severe declines. So maybe we humans shouldn't be quite as smug about our own LC status...

1 comment:

  1. ''No major threats resulting in in an overall population decline''
    I reckon we are under constant threat Marianne, the threat of nuclear holocaust is ever present and the way we are using up the planets natural resources spells disaster just around the corner.

    Our over dependance on modern digital technology and our misuse of antibiotics, are just two of many problems looming on the horizon......................hopefully!! :-)