Species success stories offer glimmer of hope amid extinction crisis

© Alex Sliwa

Above: Two Iberian lynxes in Spain. Thanks to a range of conservation efforts, the species tripled its population in 10 years, enough of an increase to lower its threat status from Critically Endangered to Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

African lions, Asian slipper orchids, New Zealand sea lions — they’re all unique, even iconic, species.

And they’re all threatened with extinction.

At least once a year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species is updated, and as ever, the news is not good. This global gauge for the world’s species — the list’s latest update was released today — echoes a crescendo of recent headlines declaring a global mass extinction event on a scale that hasn’t been seen since the demise of the dinosaurs.

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Extinction is a natural part of the life cycle. However, human activities such as habitat destruction and overhunting have accelerated extinctions to between 100 and 1,000 times the normal rate.

Here are some of the major findings of the Red List’s latest update:

  • Almost 30% of species that have been assessed by IUCN are threatened with extinction. About 85% of those are mainly threatened by habitat loss and degradation.
  • Species with low and/or declining numbers include the African golden cat, the New Zealand sea lion and the African lion, which remains listed as Vulnerable despite intensive conservation efforts.
  • Although habitat loss poses a major challenge to many species, it’s not the only one. For example, many medicinal plants are also threatened by overcollection, while illegal trade poses a threat to many species of Asian slipper orchid.

The disappearance of species isn’t just a concern for the plants and animals in danger. It’s also a worrying symptom of the degradation of ecosystems that we rely on for everything from absorbing greenhouse gases to filtering drinking water. As CI Executive Vice Chair Russ Mittermeier pointed out in a recent blog post, “Many of the roles that species play are still unknown to us. Some may hold the cure for diseases that plague us; others might help us design more efficient products.”

But it’s not all bad news. For example, thanks to dedicated conservation efforts, the population of Iberian lynx tripled between 2002 and 2012, causing it to be “down-listed” from Critically Endangered to Endangered. With 156 individuals as of 2012, the species isn’t out of danger yet. But thanks to actions ranging from restoring rabbit populations in southern Spain and Portugal to compensating local landowners for maintaining lynx habitat on their land, they’re making a comeback.

“This global wave of extinctions is an ominous symptom of the perilous state of our planet’s ecosystems,” said Mittermeier, who chairs the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Primate Specialist Group. “However, hopeful stories like that of the Iberian lynx prove that with the combined efforts of dedicated conservationists and local communities, reversing these trends is possible.”

Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Conservation News.