The IUCN Red List—Nature’s early warning system

01 January 2012 | Article

How can we save biodiversity if we don’t know the threats facing our species and what the priorities are?

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ is going from strength to strength in providing the world with the information needed to guide conservation action from the local to global level.

Far more than a list of species and their status, the Red List is a powerful tool providing information on population size and trends, geographic range and habitat needs of species. Through the Red List we can find out if a species is being over-hunted, whether it is considered sacred, or whether it is protected by international law. We can find out whether biological traits such as a slow reproductive rate make it susceptible to overharvesting or whether its restricted range makes it vulnerable to climate change. We can also find out if a species is of particular value to people as a source of food, medicine or livelihood.

A one-stop shop

With distribution maps and photos, the Red List a ‘one-stop shop’ for biodiversity information and a key tool for decision making. As a sobering indictment of what we humans have done to our natural world, the Red List is too big to publish as a book. Instead the information is available as a searchable online database with the information freely available to all who can act on it. This includes government agencies, wildlife departments, NGOs, natural resource planners, researchers, the private sector and many others. The Red List helps target precious funding to where it can be most effectively used.

In 2010 the world’s governments agreed on a global target: ‘By 2020 the extinction of known threatened species has been prevented and their conservation status, particularly of those most in decline, has been improved and sustained.’ The Red List allows us to monitor progress towards this target.

The Red List is a joint effort of IUCN’s Species Programme and Species Survival Commission (SSC) with the input of IUCN Member organisations. Collectively, this network holds the most complete scientific knowledge base on the biology and current conservation status of species.

User-friendly

Many species are not listed as threatened simply because information on them is not available so there is a race against time to get more assessments done. IUCN and its networks are teaming up with a wider range of partners to increase coverage. They are also working with industry to find out how to package the Red List information to make it most useful to ‘customers’.

The aim is to ensure that the Red List serves as nature’s early warning system, identifying threats early enough so that corrective action can be taken. When the Saiga Antelope was listed as Critically Endangered on the Red List it drew international attention, leading to a conservation programme for the species. The 2004 IUCN Red List update showed that 30% of amphibians were at risk of extinction. As a result of this report, new conservation groups and alliances were formed to respond to the crisis, resulting in a huge effort to save amphibians from extinction over the past five years.

With habitat loss and degradation being a major cause of species decline, site-based management is an important conservation response. Several companies have begun to use Red List data as a baseline for determining the impact of their operations and to guide site management and restoration efforts.

A media sensation

Every year we see an increase in media coverage of reports based on the IUCN Red List from leading science journals and newspapers to television and radio. The Red List is also widely used by educators and students. Many zoos, aquariums and botanic gardens use Red List information on their animal enclosure signage.

“The IUCN Red List is critical as an indicator of the health of biodiversity, in identifying conservation needs and informing necessary changes in policy and legislation to drive conservation forward,” says Jean-Christophe Vié, Deputy Director of IUCN’s Global Species Programme. “The world is full of marvellous species that are rapidly moving towards becoming things of myth and legend if conservation efforts are not more successfully implemented—if we do not act now, future generations may not know what a Chinese Water Fir or a Bizarre-nosed Chameleon look like.”

It’s a long process to make the Red List achieve its full potential, but the will is strong. Quite simply, conservation would be lost without it.