When something precious is lost anywhere in the world, it affects each of us. The loss of a forest in Brazil, Indonesia or Canada is felt everywhere. The disappearance of a species – no matter how ferocious, secretive or small – causes unpredictable ripples through our environment and our lives.
It’s a little bit like the famous adage about how the flutter of a butterfly’s wings can cause a hurricane across the planet: When a single species is lost, the ramifications can echo across the globe.
The scientists who protect biodiversity know this all too well.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, connects the dots between individual species and the forces that lead to extinction. The organization supports scientific research, field projects and conservation policy, linking the smallest of creatures to the greatest international issues.
IN ACTION: Check out some of CI's scientists in the field.
All of this – and more – they do by making a list.
The IUCN Red List, compiled through exhaustive, partner-led research, is designed to provide a realistic scientific assessment of the status of the world’s species. This list is used as the basis for how many countries develop their own national laws and policies as well as how business and investors assess their impacts before they develop. Conservation International (CI), in addition to contributing to the list, also uses it to inform CI’s targets and actions on the ground.
Species as Indicators of Global Health
This year’s Red List update will describe the status of more than 45,000 species. Although this compilation doesn’t approach the total number of species on Earth, it does provide powerful insight into the state of the planet’s overall health.
Let’s use mammals as an example. To prepare the Global Mammal Assessment announced at this year’s World Conservation Congress in Barcelona, hundreds of scientists from across the world worked individually, in teams and across boundaries to collect, proof and record data on thousands of species. Here are two results of this exhaustive study:
The Malaysian tapir (Tapirus indicus), whose Red List status changed from Vulnerable to Endangered, is declining due to habitat loss and land-conversion, which are also serious causes of climate change. The Malaysian tapir population is estimated to have dropped by more than 50 percent (roughly equaling the rate of destruction of tropical rainforest in Southeast Asia) in just over 30 years. Although tapirs are not traditionally linked to climate change, the correlation is clear.
LEARN MORE: Find out more about unique biodiversity with CI's species profiles.
The fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) has also been designated as Endangered as their Asian wetland habitats are converted to agriculture or for other human uses. Those wetlands, which serve as buffers from storms, traps for pollution and nurseries for young fish, are being destroyed at a terrifying rate.
So What Now?
What do these stories, and the cumulative story of the Red List, provide?
A global snapshot of the precarious health of life on Earth.
The Red List also provides the scientists’ best estimate as to why such changes are occurring. In many cases, habitat loss is the key culprit in a species decline – nearly 90% of species on the Red List are danger from losing the places they live. Often, the illegal trade in animals (or animal parts) for clothing, medicines, or food plays a role. More and more, scientists are recognizing our changing climate as a significant cause.
As CI continues to move further into addressing the global issues that underline the health and viability of all species – including humanity – it is the hard, proven science of the Red List that allows us to succeed.
We speak more effectively about conservation corridors because the species data has been collected. We achieve new marine reserves after proving the existence of new species like the walking shark. And we make the case for arresting climate change through protecting forests only after proving how important those forests, and the species that live within them, are.
READ MORE: Check out how conservation corridors are protecting pandas.
As Russ Mittermeier, President of CI, said, “The IUCN Red List is the most powerful tool in species conservation today … Without it, we wouldn’t even know where to begin.”