5 Winners and Losers on New “Red List” of World’s Rarest Species

From sea turtles to forest giraffes, surprises abound in IUCN Red List.

The California Channel Island fox is one of the few winners on the IUCN's Red List.


There’s good news and bad news from the world's leading scientists who study endangered species.

In the good news department: Leatherback sea turtles are showing significant population gains, especially in the Atlantic Ocean.

In the bad news department: The okapi—a rare mammal that lives in densely vegetated habitat in central Africa and is popularly known as the forest giraffe—is in serious trouble.

Such disparities are among the findings of the latest update to the Red List, a guide to the world's rarest species maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The Switzerland-based group unveiled its second update to the Red List this year on Monday, November 25.

The list is intended to "highlight various issues that are happening around the world—to point out what species are going down rapidly and to point out what needs to done," says Craig Hilton Taylor, a conservation biologist who manages IUCN's Red List Unit from an office in Cambridge, England.

The IUCN tries to balance the accounts of declines with stories of successes,

Taylor says, "so it's not all gloom and doom."

Five big takeaways from the new Red List:

1. Okapi (forest giraffe) declines

The okapi is a highly secretive mammal that lives deep in the forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Its distinctive striped rump brings to mind a zebra, but it’s most closely related to the giraffe. The okapi is so rarely seen that it’s sometimes likened to a unicorn.

In putting together today's Red List update, Taylor says, "we were quite shocked to see how far the okapi's numbers have gone down, so we want to see some conservation done on this species."

The okapi lives in an area that has seen years of armed conflict and encroachment on reserves like Virunga National Park. It also continues to be hunted for its meat and skin, Taylor says.

Still, conservation groups "have made progress in the last few months, and a bit of civility has come to that area," Taylor notes. "Time will tell if these gains will be maintained."

2. Leatherback sea turtles recover

Photographer, Brian Skerry; Senior Producer/Editor, John Kondis
Brian Skerry captures an image of a giant leatherback turtle.

PHOTOGRAPHER, BRIAN SKERRY; SENIOR PRODUCER/EDITOR, JOHN KONDIS

Brian Skerry captures an image of a giant leatherback turtle.

Leatherbacks are the largest living turtles, sometimes reaching 550 to 1,500 pounds (250 to 700 kilograms). But the soft-shell reptiles saw big drops in their numbers a few years ago. In the Pacific Ocean, the turtle is still seeing declines. But in the Atlantic, Taylor says, "it's not as bad as we thought."

Reasons for the good news include greater protection of turtle nesting beaches, a crackdown on egg poachers, more regulations on fishing, and better fishing gear, which is less likely to trap turtles in long lines or nets.

3. Ultrarare white-winged flufftails: fewer than 1,000 left

A "very secretive bird [NS1] " according to Taylor, white-winged flufftails live in wetlands, migrating to higher altitudes during breeding. The dove-size bird has white wing patches and grayish chestnut coloring over most of the rest of its body.

Its range is poorly understood, but the bird is known to live in Ethiopia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.

Scientists estimate that there are only about 700 breeding-age white-winged flufftails left in the world. The problem, according to Taylor: "Wetlands are treated as waste areas that need to get drained and developed, so those habitats are always under huge threats.

"Loss of habitat," he adds, "is pushing it to extinction very quickly."

4. A California fox rebounds

Twenty years ago, the California Channel Island fox was in severe decline, down to about 1,500 individuals.

The main threat: invasive species on the small fox's native Channel Islands, off southern California, including golden eagles and rats, which ate the small predators, outcompeted them, or spread disease to them.

But the National Park Service has removed the eagles, bred and reintroduced foxes, and inoculated them against certain diseases. The population today? About 5,500 foxes. (See "California's 'Dwarf Fox' Is Back From the Brink.")

5. Ups and downs for the albatross

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC LIVE!

Photographer Frans Lanting talks of his epic journey to capture images of the albatross, a hauntingly beautiful bird enshrined in legend and poetry.

"Overall, albatrosses are in a very bad way, but it's good to see there are some positive signs of recovery," Taylor says. Albatrosses are large seabirds that travel great distances, often circling the globe. They spend most of their time soaring above the ocean on their massive wings. Their numbers have declined in recent years, and scientists suspect one reason is human activity, especially fishing, which decreases the birds’ food supply and can kill them if they’re caught in nets.

IUCN recorded 1.1 to 1.4 million mature black-browed albatrosses and 129,000 mature black-footed albatrosses.

The effort to bolster the numbers of these albatross species has mirrored the effort to save turtles, including placing restrictions on fishing practices that kill seabirds and better fishing technology. On islands where albatrosses breed, scientists have removed invasive species that eat their eggs, especially rats.

Understanding the Red List

This year marks the 49th anniversary of the Red List, which IUCN compiles from available scientific research on rare living things.

The group is a membership organization of a thousand government and nonprofit groups interested in conservation, and includes 11,000 volunteer scientists and 1,000 professional staffers in 160 countries.

For this report, IUCN assessed 71,576 species and found that 21,286 are threatened with extinction. Some 799 species are declared extinct, 61 are declared extinct in the wild, and 4,286 are listed as critically endangered.

Although the number of species assessed is only a small percentage of the Earth’s species, the Red List is designed to be a snapshot of what's happening with nature, Taylor says. Over time, the number of species placed on the Red List has been rising, as scientists have gained the ability to assess more species.

"The Red List remains our most important indicator of the health of species and ultimately the ecosystems in which they live," says Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International and chair of IUCN's Species Survival Commission's Primate Specialist Group. "This year we're seeing some recoveries, which are a strong sign that conservation works. But the many species’ declines mean we need to do much more, improving the sustainability of production systems and creating and managing protected areas for key populations."