“This is a year that didn’t happen,” says Craig Hilton-Taylor. Many of us may wish this was the case.
Hilton-Taylor, of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), is referring to the “huge” gap in biodiversity data as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. “We’ve lost lots of valuable time in terms of monitoring,” he says.
Nevertheless, on July 9 the IUCN released its latest Red List of Threatened Species, covering the changing fates of some of the 120,000 species it monitors. Over 32,000 species are currently threatened with extinction; among them, the European hamster, the North Atlantic right whale and multiple species of lemur are newly listed as critically endangered – one step away from extinction in the wild.
The Bonin pipistrelle bat, splendid poison frog, Jalpa false brook salamander and spined dwarf mantis are species now declared extinct by the IUCN, although each is classified as a “non-genuine status change,” indicating the new status is due to new information, improved knowledge or incorrect data used previously.
The European (or common) hamster “is expected to go extinct within the next 30 years” unless its situation changes, according to the IUCN. Litter sizes have dropped from 20 to five or six, while the species has disappeared from parts of France, Germany and swathes of Eastern Europe. It’s a dramatic change from the species’ last assessment in 2016, when the European hamster was listed as of “least concern,” at the lowest end of the Red List scale.
“That’s a really unusual (case),” says Hilton-Taylor, who heads the Red List unit, adding that the drop in litter size has yet to be fully explained. Industrial development, agricultural monocultures (growing a single crop on farmland), global warming and light pollution are all being investigated as potential reasons, says the report.
Whales in trouble
Elsewhere, fewer than 250 mature North Atlantic right whales are now left in existence. Rising sea temperatures related to climate change may have driven their krill food supply northwards, says Hilton-Taylor, repositioning the whales’ summer feeding ground “right in the middle of key shipping lanes” in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, off the Canadian coast. Strikes from ships, entanglement in fishing gear and a lower reproduction rate – potentially related to stress, or whales finding it harder to catch food, Hilton-Taylor posits – have caused the population to drop by approximately 15% since 2011.
The situation for lemurs has also deteriorated. Of the 107 lemur species still alive, all of which are native to Madagascar, 103 are now considered threatened, of which 33 are critically endangered.
Among them is the Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur, the world’s smallest primate at around nine centimeters long. “It’s been under increasing threat because of forest loss,” caused by agricultural activities and charcoal burning, says Hilton-Taylor.
Slash and burn farming in Madagascar has resulted in fragmented forests, he adds, leaving another critically endangered lemur species, Verreaux’s Sifaka, more vulnerable to hunting.
But the Red List also shows that some species have made a recovery in recent years, indicating that with the right conservation efforts, a dire situation need not be a terminal one. In the new report, the Walia ibex, endemic to Ethiopia, the Turks and Caicos rock iguana and the Yunnan Asian frog of China all showed genuine improvement and had their Red List status upgraded.
“The stage will be reset, and all the learning from this year – and all the past years that have gone before us – will feed into that process, and hopefully we’ll have a new, dynamic and ambitious post-2020 strategy,” says Hilton-Taylor.
“I think that the pandemic, in a way, has been a wake-up call for many people around the world,” he adds. “People are realizing that they’ve lost a connection with nature.
“We do need a major transformation in society as to how we live, and to look at how we improve sustainability in the way we live and reduce our impacts on the planet.”