Species decline is threatening people and the planet

Posted: 19 June 2012

The source of our food, medicines and clean water, as well the livelihoods of millions of people may be at risk with the rapid decline of the world’s animal and plant species, according to a new study charting the rapid decline of the world’s animal and plant species.

The latest update of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, released today, shows that of the 63,837 species assessed, 19,817 are threatened with extinction, including 41 per cent of amphibians, 33 per cent of reef building corals, 25 per cent of mammals, 13 per cent of birds, and 30 per cent of conifers.

Coral reef scene in Raja Ampat Islands, Malaysia
Coral reef scene in Raja Ampat Islands, Malaysia. More than 275 million people are dependent on coral reefs for food, coastal protection and livelihoods.
Credit: IUCN Photo Library © Jason Suwandy

Commenting on the report, timed to coincide with the Earth Summit in Rio, IUCN Director General, Julia Marton-Lefevre, said that sustainability is a matter of life and death for people on the planet. “A sustainable future cannot be achieved without conserving biological diversity—animal and plant species, their habitats and their genes—not only for nature itself, but also for all 7 billion people who depend on it. The latest IUCN Red List is a clarion call to world leaders gathering in Rio to secure the web of life on this planet.”

While most people in wealthy countries depend primarily on domesticated species for their dietary needs, millions of other people are dependent on wild species. Freshwater ecosystems are under substantial pressure from expanding human populations and exploitation of water resource, says the IUCN.

“An important food source, freshwater fish are facing threats from unsustainable fishing practices and habitat destruction caused by pollution and the construction of dams. A quarter of the world’s inland fisheries are located on the African continent, yet 27 per cent of freshwater fish in Africa are threatened including the Oreochromis karongae, an extremely important source of food in the Lake Malawi region that has been severely overfished. “

<i>Oreochromis karongae</i>, Endangered.
Oreochromis karongae, Endangered. An extremely important source of food in the Lake Malawi region that has been severely overfished. Credit: Prof George F Turner

Further studies are being carried out in other regions and in the latest IUCN Red List update the Mekong Herring, an important commercial fish endemic to the lower Mekong River in the Indo-Burma region, has been listed as Vulnerable as a result of overfishing and habitat degradation.

In some parts of the world up to 90 per cent of coastal populations obtain much of their food and earn their primary income through fishing; yet over-fishing has reduced some commercial fish stocks by over 90 per cent. Over a third of skates and rays are threatened with extinction including the commercially valuable Leopard Ray, which is listed as Vulnerable due to extensive habitat degradation and heavy fishing pressures.

More than 275 million people are dependent on coral reefs for food, coastal protection and livelihoods. Globally, coral reef fisheries are worth US$ 6.8 billion annually. Overfishing affects 55 per cent of the world’s reefs and according to The IUCN Red List, 18 per cent of groupers, an economically important family of large reef fish, are threatened.

Coral reefs must be managed sustainably to ensure they continue to provide the essential food that millions of people rely on as a source of protein says the report

“The services and economic value that species provide are irreplaceable and essential to our wellbeing,” says Jon Paul Rodríguez, Deputy Chair, IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC). “Unless we live within the limits set by nature, and manage our natural resources sustainably, more and more species will be driven towards extinction. If we ignore our responsibility we will compromise our own survival.”