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The IUCN is responsible for identifying endangered animal species. However, can it effectively fulfill this role?


In March, Alice Hughes discovered an unusual lizard clinging to the limestone wall of a cave in northern Thailand with its long, thin fingers. She believes it is a grey-brown gecko that has yet to be identified by science.

Hughes, a conservation biologist at the University of Hong Kong, is currently studying limestone systems which are important havens for biodiversity. These systems contain deep caves that provide refuge for uncommon species. According to Hughes, many of these species have yet to be identified by scientists. This marks the group’s second significant finding, following the discovery of a neon-green cave gecko in Myanmar in 2017.

According to Hughes, every new discovery is a source of amazement, but it also brings about worries. A recently found reptile is most likely uncommon – “otherwise it would have been identified earlier.” The cave geckos likely only exist in a specific location, and a natural calamity or the development of a mine, which is a common danger in south-east Asia, could result in the extinction of an evolutionary lineage that has been around for thousands of years.

However, when a new species is identified, the process of seeking international assistance to safeguard them involves navigating a challenging and vague evaluation procedure set by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which maintains the most authoritative record of the risk of extinction for species known as the “red list”.

A human hand holds the gecko, which has big black eyes.

According to Hughes, a newly discovered lizard faces a difficult situation where it must prove its uniqueness in order to receive assistance, but is also unable to qualify for funding specifically designed for endangered species. This results in many at-risk species with limited habitats being overlooked.

A recent study, co-authored by Hughes, highlights various apprehensions held by scientists and conservationists working in the field regarding the red list. The study criticizes the list for potentially providing inaccurate and biased assessments, and for having a disproportionate influence on global decision-making.

25 renowned scholars, who oversee the evaluations of IUCN’s specialist groups, are among the authors. According to IUCN assessments, experts claim that yellowfin tuna are flourishing in the open ocean and are commonly consumed, but research reveals that crucial populations are on the verge of collapsing. Jaguars are classified as not endangered, which hinders their chances of receiving aid, but disregards subpopulations that are at risk of losing their distinctive traits. Although the actual numbers are uncertain, bird species are categorized as being at low risk of extinction.

A male jaguar sharpens his claws and scratches his signature into a tree on the edge of his mountain territory in the Sierra de Vallejo in Mexico’s western state of Nayarit. The boundary-post has been chosen with care – the tree has soft bark, allowing for deep scratch marks that are a clear warning, backed by pungent scent, not to trespass.

If you have seen a David Attenborough documentary, chances are you are familiar with red-list assessments. These assessments serve as a measure of the planet’s biodiversity and classify species into nine categories based on their risk of extinction, ranging from “extinct” to “least concern.”

Created in 1964, the list has been hailed by many as a vital resource that has acted as a catalyst for species conservation. It has, however, also been criticised by some for its slow pace of assessment and data gaps. After nearly six decades, just 2% of the world’s species have been assessed, skewing toward well-known charismatic species such as big cats and apes, research has shown. Species listed as “data deficient” are twice as likely to be threatened but are less likely to get funding compared with species that have been assessed as threatened – with some arguing such species should be automatically classified as “assumed threatened”.

The paper’s authors are prepared to make their criticisms public, despite previously only discussing them within academic circles. Some of the authors are disappointed by the IUCN’s slow progress, while others feel compelled to take action due to the obligations outlined in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), a significant agreement made in December. The red list is considered the primary measure of species risk and is included in Goal A of the GBF, which aims to stop human-caused extinctions and decrease extinction rates by 2050.

According to Andrew Gonzalez, a professor specializing in biodiversity preservation at McGill University, the GBF agreement presents an opportunity to assess the shortcomings of the red list in measuring extinction and biodiversity.

According to Gonzalez, who was not involved in the study, the IUCN red list is highly respected for being one of the main sources of information. However, it cannot be relied upon to accurately determine if we are successfully reducing the risk of extinction for all native wild species by ten times. This is due to the fact that there are approximately 8 million species on Earth, while the list only covers 150,000.

According to a report by the United Nations, approximately one million species are at risk of becoming extinct in the next few decades. However, only 42,100 species have been identified as being threatened with extinction on the red list. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has acknowledged that more than a quarter of their assessments are outdated due to their own 10-year rule. This means that for the targets set for 2030 by the Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), many species will not have been reassessed in that time period. Hughes, a spokesperson for the IUCN, states that these flaws in the system create a false sense of security and do not accurately reflect our understanding of biodiversity patterns and threats.

The recent pre-print article published on Authorea discusses the IUCN’s assessment methods and the growing trend of using it to determine spending for frontline organizations. According to the authors, the assessment process relies on both scientific data and the opinions of specialist groups, potentially leading to biased or subjective statuses. Due to the volunteer-based nature of expert meetings, there are bureaucratic delays that prevent the red list from continuously and regularly assessing the world’s endangered biodiversity.

A greater adjutant stork, long-legged with feathers that start black near the body and turn white halfway along, stands over its baby, which sits in a nest.

A recent study discovered that most species of storks, which are classified as being of “least concern”, have not undergone a population assessment. This means that their population sizes and trends have not been scientifically evaluated. Gopi Sundar, co-chair of the IUCN specialist group for storks, ibises, and spoonbills, expresses disappointment in the current unreliability of the red list.

The recent publication that critiques the IUCN brings attention to various concerns, including the omission of certain threats like mining and the use of outdated and inaccurate geographic techniques. A study conducted in 2020 revealed that, on average, 25-50% of species locations were not included in the IUCN’s maps of their ranges.

A big group of yellowfin tuna in the ocean.

According to Guillermo Ortuño-Crespo, co-chair of the IUCN high seas specialist group, ocean experts recognize the urgent need for change. However, the current red list, originally created for monitoring terrestrial species, fails to accurately assess marine threats like overfishing. As a result, species like yellowfin tuna may be listed as “least concern” despite facing collapse in their Indian Ocean fisheries.

According to Jon Paul Rodriguez, who chairs the IUCN Species Survival Commission, the red list is not a comprehensive record of all species in the world, but it is currently the most comprehensive and reliable source of data on the threat of extinction for species worldwide.

“We have extensively evaluated various groups of species, allowing us to uncover important insights about the planet’s biodiversity,” he states. “For instance, the IUCN Red List reveals that 41% of amphibians, 27% of mammals, 21% of reptiles, and 13% of birds are currently at risk.”

The IUCN is collaborating with partners to fill in any missing areas in terms of geography and taxonomy, in accordance with their strategic plan for 2030. However, due to their dependence on donors, it is a continual struggle to ensure that assessments are up-to-date with the limited resources at hand.

According to Rodriguez, the IUCN red list is fair, unbiased, and can be replicated, and it includes a system for appeals: “Since the Red List was initially released in 1964, there have been very few requests for reconsideration, demonstrating the effectiveness of the IUCN Red List procedure.”

Preparations for the seventh World Conservation Congress in Marseille, in 2021, hosted by the IUCN.

Gonzalez, who is co-chair of GEO BON, a global network of thousands of researchers dedicated to improving how biodiversity is measured, agrees that the red list remains one of the few historical sources that will continue to provide “incredibly valuable” data covering the past five decades. But on its own it is not fit for the purposes it is now required to perform, he adds.

Gonzalez states that it is crucial to recognize that we will soon shift from using indicators that were not created for the GBF to a monitoring framework that will be more tailored. This will hopefully address some of the current concerns.

Gonzalez mentions that there is a wealth of regularly updated data from various sources worldwide, including observations by individuals, camera traps, eDNA, satellites, and drones. These sources provide valuable insight into the state of biodiversity and are helpful in monitoring changes and informing conservation efforts. Rodriguez states that the IUCN is currently investigating ways to integrate this data into the red list.

In addition to the constraints of listing itself, the writers note an issue with prominent organizations that prioritize funding for species in more severe threatened categories.

Ruben Dario Palacio, a biologist and the lead author of the paper, discovered that the red list does not always prioritize areas that conservationists deem most important. Through his research, he revealed information about the yellow-headed manakin, a little-known bird with a round, citrus-yellow appearance that inhabits Andean cloud forests in Colombia. Palacio examined a century’s worth of ornithological data and determined that the species is native to Colombia and facing decline due to habitat destruction.

Small black bird with bright yellow head sits on a slender branch.

The bird was deemed not at risk enough for a targeted assessment of its threats by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), which provided funding to Fundación Ecotonos, the NGO founded by Palacio. According to Palacio, this decision was based on a flawed red list assessment that did not take into account population levels or important factors like habitat fragmentation and climate change. He was advised to use the funds for other species, such as the well-protected Ruiz’s robber frog, instead of the manakin.

Palacio’s critical remarks on Twitter following his disappointment in January sparked a conversation among colleagues, leading to the creation of an article that addresses various concerns raised by scientists from six different continents. According to Palacio, the current red list holds a dominant position in conservation decision-making, ignoring the expertise of specialists around the world who gather data at the local level. He argues that this reliance on a single authoritative list could result in the decline or extinction of certain populations and species.

The CEPF, which provided funding for Palacio’s study, states that it seeks input from numerous experts and stakeholders within the region when making decisions on funding. This includes conservation scientists, NGOs, government officials, and the private sector. According to executive director Olivier Langrand, the CEPF values the perspective of the IUCN red list and local knowledge as crucial for effective conservation strategies.

Rodriguez emphasizes that the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species was never meant to be the only tool for determining conservation priorities. This is evident to those who have read the document outlining the Red List Categories and Criteria.

A lowland streaked tenrec, a small rodent-looking thing with black, white and yellow fur with white spikes.

Critics argue that while wealthier western countries use national conservation strategies and “red lists,” the IUCN red list has become the primary list for conservation priorities in many developing countries. According to Hughes, the relationship between the global north and south has not been fully recognized, as most specialized groups are still conducted in English or other UN languages, which may overlook voices from Asia in particular.

Sundar notes that progress has been swift in moving away from a time when the opinions of white scientists were given more weight than those of scientists of color. However, he points out that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) still relies heavily on lessons learned in Europe and America and applies them globally. He criticizes this approach as being rooted in a colonial mindset. For instance, Sundar says that the IUCN often identifies farms and cities as major threats to biodiversity, even though farming methods and urban development differ greatly in the global south, where many farms actually provide a habitat for diverse wildlife.

Although countries leading the effort in conservation are generating strong research, disregarding this in favor of assumptions based on Western perspectives is not scientifically sound or helpful. As a result, the current red list cannot be trusted for a significant number of species.

Monarch butterflies in Pismo Beach, California.

According to the IUCN, the red list utilizes information from various sources, including Indigenous peoples, citizen scientists, and local communities. Rodriguez states that they have implemented specific efforts to enhance global involvement.

The 25 writers have similar worries and present a 19-point overview to enhance conservation attempts. However, they have different opinions on how the IUCN red list’s role should evolve. Some suggest shifting away from the traditional focus on species extinction and towards safeguarding species that are still plentiful, preventing the decline of local populations, and directly preserving habitats (such as the limestone caves of geckos) regardless of their impact on a species’ survival. Others simply propose updating the red list’s techniques and funding sources to consider local knowledge.

“If the IUCN red list were to vanish tomorrow, how would we assess our progress in mitigating threats to biodiversity?” asks Ortuño-Crespo. “I believe the most productive approach would be to have a candid discussion about the successes and failures of the IUCN red list. Let’s put everything on the table without any bias or personal agendas.”

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on X (formerly known as Twitter) for all the latest news and features

Source: theguardian.com