Lemurs and Right Whale one step away from extinction among 6,811 critically endangered species, report reveals
The Red List has surpassed 120,000 species, with 120,372 species now assessed. Of these, 32,441 are threatened with extinction, while 6,811 are critically endangered
Close to a third of all the lemur species on Earth are on the brink of extinction, according to the latest update of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of threatened species. Human activities, particularly deforestation and hunting, are driving the decline. Such habitat destruction has also been linked to an increased risk of zoonotic diseases – such as Covid-19 – infections that jump between animals and humans. The North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis) has also been moved from endangered to critically endangered. The list has surpassed 120,000 species, with 120,372 species now assessed. Of these, 32,441 are threatened with extinction, while 6,811 are critically endangered.
“Almost a third (31%) of all lemur species in Madagascar are now critically endangered – just one step away from extinction – with 98% of them threatened. This update completes a revision of all African primate assessments, concluding that over half of all primate species in the rest of Africa are under threat. This update also reveals that the North Atlantic Right Whale and the European Hamster are now both critically endangered,” says the report.
“At the heart of this crisis is a dire need for alternative, sustainable livelihoods to replace the current reliance on deforestation and unsustainable use of wildlife. These findings bring home the urgent need for an ambitious post-2020 biodiversity framework that drives effective conservation action,” emphasizes Dr Grethel Aguilar, IUCN Acting Director-General, in the analysis.
According to researchers, 33 lemur species are critically endangered, with 103 of the 107 surviving species threatened with extinction, mainly due to deforestation and hunting in Madagascar. Thirteen lemur species have been pushed to higher threat categories as a result of intensifying human pressures. Among those newly listed as critically endangered are Verreaux’s Sifaka (Propithecus verreauxi) and Madame Berthe's Mouse Lemur (Microcebus berthae), the smallest primate in the world. Both were previously listed as endangered. These species are undergoing substantial declines as their forest habitats continue to be destroyed through slash and burn agriculture, as well as by logging for charcoal and fuelwood, explain authors. Hunting further threatens Verreaux’s Sifaka, despite being illegal and regarded as taboo or ‘fady’ in many parts of its range.
“Through IUCN Save Our Species projects, we are addressing the main threats to the survival of lemurs such as slash and burn agriculture, illegal logging, as well as hunting and keeping lemurs as pets. We also work to support local communities to develop livelihoods that make sustainable use of natural resources,” says Ana Nieto, head of IUCN Save Our Species. “With about 40% of Madagascar’s original forest cover lost between the 1950s and 2000, reforestation is crucial to protecting all species of lemurs. Since 2017, our projects have planted more than 2.7 million trees to improve lemur habitat across the island,” Nieto explains.
Elsewhere in Africa, an estimated 53% of primate species (54 of 103) are now under threat of extinction. This includes all 17 species of Red Colobus, making it the continent’s most threatened genus of monkeys. Among the primates changing to a higher threat status is the King Colobus (Colobus polykomos), a monkey living on Africa’s west coast, which has gone from Vulnerable to Endangered. Hunting for bushmeat – much of it is illegal – and habitat loss continue to pose the most urgent threats to primates across the continent.
In the case of the North Atlantic Right Whale, the report says that fewer than 250 mature individuals were estimated to be alive at the end of 2018, and the total population has declined by approximately 15% since 2011. “This decline is being driven by a combination of increased mortality due to entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strikes, and a lower reproduction rate compared to previous years. Of 30 confirmed human-caused deaths or serious injuries of North Atlantic Right Whales between 2012 and 2016, 26 were due to entanglement,” says the study.
Experts believe that climate change could also be a culprit. Warmer sea temperatures have likely pushed their main prey species further north during summer, into the Gulf of St Lawrence, where the whales are more exposed to accidental encounters with ships and also at high risk of entanglement in crab-pot ropes, shows the analysis. “The dramatic declines of species such as the North Atlantic Right Whale included in IUCN list update highlight the gravity of the extinction crisis. Saving the fast-growing number of threatened species from extinction requires transformational change, supported by action to implement national and international agreements,” says Dr Jane Smart, Global Director of the IUCN Biodiversity Conservation Group.
The European Hamster (Cricetus cricetus), once abundant across Europe and Russia, has also suffered severe populations declines across its entire range and is now listed as critically endangered on the IUCN list. The rodent has vanished from three-quarters of its original habitat in the French region of Alsace, from at least a third of its range in Germany, and more than 75% of its range in Eastern Europe. If nothing changes, the species is expected to go extinct within the next 30 years, warns the research team.
“Research has shown that the population declines are likely due to lowered reproduction rates. While a female hamster had an average of over 20 offspring a year during most of the 20th century, females today have been found to give birth to only 5 to 6 pups annually. The reasons for the reduced reproduction rates are not yet fully understood, but the expansion of monoculture plantations, industrial development, global warming, and light pollution are being investigated as possible causes,” say experts.
The world’s most expensive fungus, Caterpillar Fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis), has also made it to the list as Vulnerable. Caterpillar Fungus only grows on the Tibetan Plateau and its demand has risen sharply since the 1990s. It is highly valued in traditional Chinese medicine, where it has been used for over 2,000 years to treat many diseases, including those related to the kidneys and lungs. In the last two decades, the fungus has become the main source of livelihoods for thousands of people where it occurs. Caterpillar Fungus’ populations have declined by at least 30% over the past 15 years as a result of overharvesting, says the report.
“This is one of the few documented cases of a fungus being threatened by overharvesting. Implementing a sustainable harvest program is needed both for the Chinese Caterpillar Fungus and for the long-term economic health of the communities that depend on it for income,” says Professor Gregory Mueller, chair of the IUCN SSC Fungal Conservation Committee.