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One in Four Mammals on Path to Extinction, Assessment Finds



Image of Iberian Lynx by Antonio Rivas/courtesy IUCN

The world’s mammals are in crisis.

At least 1,141 of the 5,487 mammals on Earth are known to be threatened with extinction, according to The International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, announced at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Barcelona today.

The most comprehensive assessment of the world’s mammals has confirmed an extinction crisis, with almost one in four at risk of disappearing forever, the IUCN said. “The real situation could be much worse as 836 mammals are listed as Data Deficient,” the organization said. “With better information more species may well prove to be in danger of extinction.”


At least 76 mammals are known to have become extinct since 1500.

“Within our lifetime hundreds of species could be lost as a result of our own actions, a frightening sign of what is happening to the ecosystems where they live,” says Julia Marton-Lefèvre, IUCN Director General. “We must now set clear targets for the future to reverse this trend to ensure that our enduring legacy is not to wipe out many of our closest relatives.”

Photo of Fishing Cat by Mathieu Ourioux/Courtesy IUCN

“The reality is that the number of threatened mammals could be as high as 36 percent,” says Jan Schipper, of Conservation International and lead author in a forthcoming article in the journal Science. “This indicates that conservation action backed by research is a clear priority for the future, not only to improve the data so that we can evaluate threats to these poorly known species, but to investigate means to recover threatened species and populations.”


The new assessment, which includes marine mammals and many other species for the first time, is a collaborative effort, by over 1,700 experts in 130 countries, to collect detailed information on species’ taxonomy, distribution, habitats, ecology, threats, human use, population trends and conservation measures.

The results show that marine mammals and the land mammals of South and Southeast Asia are facing a particularly bleak future. For example, 79 percent of primate species in this region are threatened with extinction.

Photo of Caspian Seal by Simon Goodman/Courtesy IUCN

The results show 188 mammals are in the highest threat category of Critically Endangered, including the Iberian Lynx (Lynx pardinus), which has a population of just 84-143 adults and has continued to decline due to a shortage of its primary prey, the European Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus).


China’s Père David’s Deer (Elaphurus davidianus), is listed as Extinct in the Wild. However, the captive and semi-captive populations have increased in recent years and it is possible that truly wild populations could be re-established soon.

It may be too late, however, to save the additional 29 species that have been flagged as Critically Endangered Possibly Extinct, including Cuba’s Little Earth Hutia (Mesocapromys sanfelipensis), which has not been seen in nearly 40 years.

Nearly 450 mammals have been listed as Endangered, including the Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii), which moved from Least Concern to Endangered after the global population declined by more than 60 percent in the last 10 years due to a fatal infectious facial cancer.

Photo of Père David’s Deer by Jess Cohen/Courtesy IUCN

The Fishing Cat (Prionailurus viverrinus), found in Southeast Asia, moved from Vulnerable to Endangered due to habitat loss in wetlands. Similarly, the Caspian Seal (Pusa caspica) moved from Vulnerable to Endangered. Its population has declined by 90 percent in the last 100 years due to unsustainable hunting and habitat degradation and is still decreasing.


Habitat loss and degradation affect 40 percent of the world’s mammals. It is most extreme in Central and South America, West, East and Central Africa, Madagascar, and in South and Southeast Asia. Over harvesting is wiping out larger mammals, especially in Southeast Asia, but also in parts of Africa and South America.

Photo of Grey-faced Sengi by F. Rovero, Trento Museum of Natural Sciences, Italy/Courtesy IUCN

The Grey-faced Sengi or Elephant-shrew (Rhynchocyon udzungwensis) is only known from two forests in the Udzungwa Mountains of Tanzania, both of which are fully protected but vulnerable to fires. The species was first described this year and has been placed in the Vulnerable category.

elephant.jpgIs there any good news?

 The results also show conservation can bring species back from the brink of extinction, with five percent of currently threatened mammals showing signs of recovery in the wild. Among the mammals that showed “genuine improvement” since the last assessment were the Wolverine, Black-footed Ferret, European Bison, Wild Horse, Mountain Zebra, Indian Rhinoceros, and African Elephant.

Photo of African Elephant by Alicia Wirz/Courtesy IUCN

Several whale species also showed improvement, including the Bowhead, Southern Right, Humpback, and Gray.

The IUCN Red List threat categories are the following, in descending order of threat:

o    Extinct or Extinct in the Wild;

o    Critically Endangered, Endangered and Vulnerable: species threatened with global extinction;

o    Near Threatened: species close to the threatened thresholds or that would be threatened without ongoing specific conservation measures;

o    Least Concern: species evaluated with a low risk of extinction;

o    Data Deficient: no assessment because of insufficient data.


Photo of Tasmanian Devil by David Hewett/Courtesy IUCN

More from National Geographic News:

One in Four Mammals at Risk of Extinction

Photo Gallery: Most Endangered Animals of ’07 Announced

PHOTOS: Primates Newly Listed as Critically Endangered

Most Endangered Bears Ranked

Selected Species From 2006 ”Red List”

More from elsewhere on the Web:

One Quarter of World’s Mammals Face Extinction (Scientific American)

Mammals in danger on the planet of the doomed (Melbourne Age)

Mammals facing extinction threat (BBC News)




  1. debbie22
    June 9, 2010, 9:51 pm

    Black-footed Ferrets are currently being bred in captivity at the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center, Kit Tally for the 2010 season is 84 as of May 31st!
    pet ferret facts