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Global extinction crisis gathers momentum

The 2009 update of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species shows that 17,291 species out of the 47,677 assessed species are threatened with extinction, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature said today.

Threatened with extinction are:

  • Red List logo.jpg21 percent of all known mammals
  • 30 percent of all known amphibians
  • 12 percent of all known birds
  • 28 percent of assessed reptiles
  • 37 percent of assessed freshwater fishes
  • 70 percent of assessed plants
  • 35 percent of assessed invertebrates

“The scientific evidence of a serious extinction crisis is mounting,” said Jane Smart, director of IUCN’s Biodiversity Conservation Group, in a news statement accompanying the 2009 Red List.

Gorgeted Puffleg picture.jpg

This gorgeted puffleg (Eriocnemis isabellae) entered the IUCN Red List in 2009 as Critically Endangered. The species is known from southwest Colombia, where it occurs in a tiny area of the Serraníadel Pinche. The global population is not known but is presumably very small given that the area of suitable habitat available for this species is thought to be less than 2,500 acres, and it is suspected to be decreasing as elfin forest habitat is converted for agriculture and illegal coca plantations. The primary threat to this bird is the shifting of the agricultural border towards remaining primary forests, causing a loss of vegetation cover, contamination of watersheds and soil degradation. Illegal coca cultivation is a major threat due to the lack of governmental presence, with 8.3 percent of potentially suitable habitat reportedly damaged annually by coca cultivation.

Photo © Alex Cortes. Photo supplied by BirdLife International.

“It’s time for governments to start getting serious about saving species and make sure it’s high on their agendas for next year, as we’re rapidly running out of time.”

“January sees the launch of the International Year of Biodiversity,” Jane Smart added in today’s statement. “The latest analysis of the IUCN Red List shows the 2010 target to reduce biodiversity loss will not be met.

“It’s time for governments to start getting serious about saving species and make sure it’s high on their agendas for next year, as we’re rapidly running out of time.”

Tip of the iceberg

“This year’s IUCN Red List makes for sobering reading,” said Craig Hilton-Taylor, manager of the IUCN Red List Unit. “These results are just the tip of the iceberg. We have only managed to assess 47,663 species so far; there are many more millions out there which could be under serious threat. We do, however, know from experience that conservation action works so let’s not wait until it’s too late and start saving our species now.”

Rabb’s fringe-limbed treefrog (Ecnomiohyla rabborum) entered the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered in 2009.

Rabb's Fringe-limbed Treefrog picture.jpgIt is known only from central Panama, where it occurs in tropical forest canopy. In 2006, the chytrid fungus was reported in the area where this species is known to occur. Since then, only one individual has been heard calling. There is also some ongoing forest clearing within the species’ range for the development of luxury holiday homes, although this potential threat has not yet reached critical levels. This treefrog is one of several species collected for captive breeding efforts, however so far attempts at captive breeding have not produced positive results.

Photo © Brad Wilson

Switzerland-based IUCN is a global environment organization that works on biodiversity, climate change, energy, human livelihoods and greening the world economy by supporting research, managing field projects, and bringing governments, NGOs, the United Nations and corporations together to develop policy, laws and best practice.

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is a comprehensive information source on the global conservation status of plant and animal species. It is based on an objective system for assessing the risk of extinction of a species should no conservation action be taken. Species are assigned to one of eight categories of threat based on whether they meet criteria linked to population trend, population size and structure and geographic range. Species listed as Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable are collectively described as “Threatened.”

Popondetta Blue-eye picture.jpg

The Popondetta blue-eye (Pseudomugil connieae) occurs in three river systems within Papua New Guinea. Human population growth is the main threat to this fish, with increased urbanization and agriculture, which are potential sources of water pollution, resulting in reduced habitat quality within these river systems. This fish is also a much sought after species in the aquarium trade, which poses another potential threat to the population. The species entered the IUCN Red List as Vulnerable in 2009.

Photo © Gerald Allen

Highlights from today’s IUCN statement:


Of the world’s 5,490 mammals, 79 are Extinct or Extinct in the Wild, with 188 Critically Endangered, 449 Endangered and 505 Vulnerable.

The eastern voalavo (Voalavo antsahabensis) appears on the IUCN Red List for the first time in the Endangered category. This rodent, endemic to Madagascar, is confined to montane tropical forest and is under threat from slash-and-burn farming.


There are now 1,677 reptiles on the IUCN Red List, with 293 added this year. In total, 469 are threatened with extinction and 22 are already Extinct or Extinct in the Wild.

The 165 endemic Philippine species new to the IUCN Red List include the Panay monitor lizard (Varanus mabitang), which is Endangered. This highly-specialized monitor lizard is threatened by habitat loss due to agriculture and logging and is hunted by humans for food.

Panay Monitor Lizard photo.jpg

The rare Panay monitor lizard occurs in large trees in primary lowland tropical moist forest. The species is a highly specialized frugivorous monitor lizard (it feeds on fruit). The loss and degradation of lowland forest habitat through conversion of land for agricultural use and logging operations is a threat to this lizard. The species is also hunted by humans for food and overhunting is a serious threat to the remaining population.

Photo © Tim Laman 

The sail-fin water lizard (Hydrosaurus pustulatus) enters in the Vulnerable category and is also threatened by habitat loss. Hatchlings are heavily collected both for the pet trade and for local consumption.

“The world’s reptiles are undoubtedly suffering, but the picture may be much worse than it currently looks,” says Simon Stuart, chair of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission. “We need an assessment of all reptiles to understand the severity of the situation, but we don’t have the U.S.$2-3 million to carry it out.”


The IUCN Red List shows that 1,895 of the planet’s 6,285 amphibians are in danger of extinction, making them the most threatened group of species known to date. Of these, 39 are already Extinct or Extinct in the Wild, 484 are Critically Endangered, 754 are Endangered and 657 are Vulnerable.

Kihansi Spray Toad photo.jpg

The Kihansi spray toad (Nectophrynoides asperginis) was formally declared Extinct in the Wild in the IUCN Red List in 2009. This amphibian was known only from the Kihansi Falls in Tanzania, where it was formerly abundant. However, after 2003 the population dramatically declined, and in January 2004 only three toads could be found, with just two males heard calling. There have been no records since then, despite surveys. The decline of this species was caused by the construction of a dam upstream of the falls in 2000 for the Lower Kihansi Hydropower Project. This removed 90 percent of the water flow, which hugely reduced the volume of spray and altered the vegetation. In 2003, the fungal disease chytridiomycosis was confirmed in dead Kihansi spray toads, and this disease was probably responsible for the final population crash.

Photo © Tim Herman

The fungus also affected the Rabb’s fringe-limbed treefrog, which enters the Red List as Critically Endangered. (See photo and description higher on this page.)


Of the 12,151 plants on the IUCN Red List, 8,500 are threatened with extinction, with 114 already Extinct or Extinct in the Wild.

Queen of the Andes  picture.jpg

The Queen of the Andes (Puya raimondii) has been reassessed and remains in the Endangered category. Found in the Andes of Peru and Bolivia, it only produces seeds once in 80 years before dying. Climate change may already be impairing its ability to flower and cattle roam freely among many colonies, trampling or eating young plants. Other threats include young plants being eaten or trampled by livestock, fires, and removal of pith from trunks.

Photo © Antonio Lambe (Acción Ambiental)


Toussaintia patriciae picture.jpg

Toussaintia patriciae is an Endangered shrub species native to Tanzania. It is known from less than 30 trees in the Udzwunga Mountains National Park and West Kilombero Nature Reserve, and occurs in very low numbers where found, though it is cryptic when not flowering and may be more common that is currently known. It is considered relatively secure at present, as the population is present in protected areas and occurs above the altitude to which firewood collectors are allowed to operate. However, this species could become more threatened very quickly if the impacts of human activities, especially wood collection, were to increase.

Photo © Quentin Luke



There are now 7,615 invertebrates on the IUCN Red List this year, 2,639 of which are threatened with extinction. Scientists added 1,360 dragonflies and damselflies, bringing the total to 1,989, of which 261 are threatened.

Giant Jewel photo.jpg

The giant jewel (Chlorocypha centripunctata) is known from the Obudu Plateau, Nigeria and from Mount Kupe and the Bakossi Mountains Cameroon. The species occurs in and around rain forest streams above 700-meter altitude. Habitat loss through selective logging and forest destruction for agricultural expansion is the main threat to this species. The species entered the IUCN Red List as Vulnerable in 2009.


Photo © Kai Schütte



Scientists also added 94 molluscs, bringing the total number assessed to 2,306, of which 1,036 are threatened.

All seven freshwater snails from Lake Dianchi in Yunnan Province, China, are new to the IUCN Red List and all are threatened. These join 13 freshwater fishes from the same area, 12 of which are threatened. The main threats are pollution, introduced fish species and overharvesting.

Freshwater Fishes

There are now 3,120 freshwater fishes on the IUCN Red List, up 510 species from last year. Although there is still a long way to go before the status all the world’s freshwater fishes is known, 1,147 of those assessed so far are threatened with extinction.

Giant Pangasius photo.jpg

The giant pangasius (Pangasius sanitwongsei) is a Critically Endangered fish found in the Chao Phraya and Mekong river basins in Cambodia, China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. It inhabits the bottom and midwaters of large rivers surrounded by rain forest, and uses deep pools as refuges in the dry season. Overfishing for food, and to a lesser extent the aquarium trade, is the principle threat facing this species. Local fisherman have reported dramatic declines in sightings and catch, and a population decline of more than 99 percent over the past 30-45 years is inferred.

Photo © Chavalit Vidthayanon

The brown mudfish (Neochanna apoda), found only in New Zealand, has been moved from Near Threatened to Vulnerable as it has disappeared from many areas in its range. Approximately 85-90 percent of New Zealand’s wetlands have been lost or degraded through drainage schemes, irrigation and land development.

The status of the Australian grayling (Prototroctes maraena), a freshwater fish, has improved as a result of conservation efforts. Now classed as Near Threatened as opposed to Vulnerable, the population has recovered thanks to fish ladders which have been constructed over dams to allow migration, enhanced riverside vegetation and the education of fishermen, who now face heavy penalties if found with this species

“Creatures living in freshwater have long been neglected.”

“Creatures living in freshwater have long been neglected. This year we have again added a large number of them to the IUCN Red List and are confirming the high levels of threat to many freshwater animals and plants. This reflects the state of our precious water resources. There is now an urgency to pursue our effort but most importantly to start using this information to move towards a wise use of water resources,” said Jean-Christophe Vié, deputy head of the IUCN Species Programme.

Downlisted bird species

Mauritius Fody picture.jpg

The Mauritius fody (Foudia rubra) was downlisted from Critically Endangered to Endangered because its extremely small population has been stable since the early 1990s and is now increasing following an island translocation. The species is restricted to southwest Mauritius, and suffered rapid population declines between 1975 and 1993. However, since 1993 the population has been stable, and there is evidence that dispersing juveniles are now setting up new breeding territories, expanding the range of the species. Historically, clearance of upland forest, particularly for plantations in the 1970s, catastrophically affected this species. Introduced predators (e.g. black rat (Rattus rattus) and crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis)) caused almost total breeding failure in most areas, and nest predation is still the major threat to the species.

Photo © Lucy Garrett (Rare Birds Yearbook). Photo supplied by BirdLife International.

Global figures for 2009 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species:

Total species assessed = 47,677

Total Extinct or Extinct in the Wild = 875 (2%) [Extinct = 809; Extinct in the Wild = 66].

Total threatened = 17,291 (36%) [Critically Endangered = 3,325; Endangered = 4,891; Vulnerable = 9,075].

Total Near Threatened = 3,650 (8%).

Total Lower Risk/conservation dependent = 281 (<1%) [this is an old category that is gradually being phased out of the Red List]

Total Data Deficient = 6,557 (14%)

Total Least Concern = 19,023 (40%)

Global figures for 2008 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species:

Total assessed = 44,838

Total Extinct or Extinct in the Wild = 869 (2%) [Extinct = 804 ; Extinct in the Wild = 65]

Total threatened = 16,928 (38%) [Critically Endangered = 3,246; Endangered = 4,770; Vulnerable = 8,912]

Total Near Threatened = 3,513 (8%)

Total Lower Risk/conservation dependent = 283 (<1%) [this is an old category that is gradually being phased out of the Red List]

Total Data Deficient = 5,570 (12%)

Total Least Concern = 17,675 (39%)

Not all species on the IUCN Red List are threatened. There are now more species on the IUCN Red List. This means that the overall percentage of threatened species has gone down by two percent. This is not because the status of the world’s biodiversity is improving, IUCN noted, but because we have assessed more species.

“In the past, Red List assessments often focused on species that were already thought to be threatened, but as the Red List grows to include more complete assessments across entire groups, we are beginning to have a better idea of the relative proportion of species which are threatened against those which are not threatened.”


  1. Toni
    April 8, 2012, 10:38 am

    I’ve just become interested in impending Methane Permafrost Melt, Global Climate Instability, the slow flipping of the magnetic poles ionizing vegetation, large asteroid/comet impacts, super-nova in our region of space, … as potential global extinction events.

    A collective effort is proposed.

    Should we be looking for practical ways of individually controlling space/time/gravity as proposed? Being able to freeze down the permafrost, shield the Earth from asteroids/comets, …

    I find that traditional particle physics and science in general are not producing useful tools that will be able to protect us from these types of global extinction events.