Fin Whale, Mountain Gorilla recovering thanks to conservation action - IUCN Red List
Gland, Switzerland -- Conservation action has brought renewed hope for the Fin Whale and the Mountain Gorilla, according to today’s update of The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The Fin Whale has improved in status from Endangered to Vulnerable following bans on whaling, while the Mountain Gorilla subspecies has moved from Critically Endangered to Endangered thanks to collaborative conservation efforts.
Today’s IUCN Red List update also reveals that overfishing is causing fish species in parts of the developing world to decline, with 13% of the world’s grouper species and 9% of Lake Malawi fish now threatened with extinction. Overexploitation also threatens the Vene tree (Pterocarpus erinaceus) – an important source of timber – which enters The IUCN Red List as Endangered.
The IUCN Red List now includes 96,951 species of which 26,840 are threatened with extinction.
“Today’s update to The IUCN Red List illustrates the power of conservation action, with the recoveries we are seeing of the Fin Whale and the Mountain Gorilla,” says Inger Andersen, IUCN Director General. “These conservation successes are proof that the ambitious, collaborative efforts of governments, business and civil society could turn back the tide of species loss. Unfortunately, the latest update also underlines how threats to biodiversity continue to undermine some of society’s most important goals, including food security. We urgently need to see effective conservation action strengthened and sustained. The ongoing UN biodiversity summit in Egypt provides a valuable opportunity for decisive action to protect the diversity of life on our planet.”
Whale populations on the rise
Previously listed as Endangered, the Fin Whale (Balaenoptera physalus) is now listed as Vulnerable as the global population of the species has roughly doubled since the 1970s. The recovery follows international bans on commercial whaling in the North Pacific and in the Southern Hemisphere, in place since 1976, and significant reductions in catches in the North Atlantic since 1990. The status of the western subpopulation of the Gray Whale (Eschrichtius robustus) has also improved, moving from Critically Endangered to Endangered. Both of these whale species were historically threatened by overexploitation for their blubber, oil and meat.
“Fin Whales and Western Gray Whales were severely depleted by hunting, and it is a relief to finally see their populations on the rise. These whales are recovering largely thanks to bans on commercial hunting, international agreements and various protection measures. Conservation efforts must continue until the populations are no longer threatened,” says Randall Reeves, Chair of the IUCN SSC Cetacean Specialist Group. “These examples of governments, industry and civil society acting together for conservation should provide inspiration for Parties gathering in Egypt this week at the Convention on Biological Diversity conference.”
The nearly complete protection of Fin Whales throughout their range has allowed the global population to reach around 100,000 mature individuals. Western Gray Whales have been protected from commercial whaling in almost all range state since 1980, but only recently has there been clear evidence of increasing numbers in the western Pacific, particularly off Sakhalin Island, Russia. The delay between conservation measures taking effect and the detection of whale recovery is due, in part, to these animals’ slow rate of reproduction. Five Gray Whale range states – Japan, the Russian Federation, the Republic of Korea, the USA and Mexico – have signed a Memorandum of Cooperation Concerning Conservation Measures for the Western Gray Whale Population. Industrial activity including oil and gas development and commercial fisheries also represent a potential threat to Gray Whales. Since 2004, an IUCN-led independent panel of scientists has been advising Sakhalin Energy, one of the largest companies operating offshore in the Russian Far East, on how to manage the potential impacts of its activities on the whales.
Hope for the Mountain Gorilla
This update of The IUCN Red List also brings hope for the Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei), which has improved in status from Critically Endangered to Endangered thanks to collaborative conservation efforts across country boundaries and positive engagement from communities living around the Mountain Gorilla habitat. The Mountain Gorilla is one of two subspecies of the Eastern Gorilla (Gorilla beringei); the Eastern Gorilla species remains Critically Endangered.
Intensive conservation action, including anti-poaching patrols and in-situ veterinary interventions – such as the removal of snares – has contributed to the growth of Mountain Gorilla populations since the previous IUCN Red List assessment, published in 2008. The 2008 Mountain Gorilla population was estimated to be around 680 individuals, but 2018 estimates show that it has increased to over 1,000 individuals, the highest figure ever recorded for the subspecies. The population growth has been confirmed through coordinated and improved survey methods.
Mountain Gorilla habitat is restricted to protected areas covering approximately 792 km2 in two locations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda – the Virunga Massif and Bwindi-Sarambwe. Both locations are bordered by land intensively cultivated for agriculture by a growing human population. Threats to this subspecies remain high, including poaching, recurring civil unrest and human-introduced diseases, ranging from respiratory infections to Ebola.
“Whilst it is fantastic news that Mountain Gorillas are increasing in number, this subspecies is still Endangered and therefore conservation action must continue,” says Dr Liz Williamson of the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group. “Coordinated efforts through a regional action plan and fully implementing IUCN Best Practice guidelines for great ape tourism and disease prevention, which recommend limiting numbers of tourists and preventing any close contact with humans, are critical to ensuring a future for the Mountain Gorilla.”
Fish species threatened by overfishing
Fifty-four fish species from two important fisheries are threatened by unsustainable fishing, according to The IUCN Red List update.
Nine per cent of the 458 fish species assessed in Lake Malawi are at high risk of extinction, causing concern for regional food security. Three out of the four species of Chambo (Oreochromis karongae, Oreochromis squamipinnis, Oreochromis lidole) – Malawi’s most economically valuable fish – are Critically Endangered. Chambo fisheries are now on the brink of collapse. Over one-third of Malawians depend on Lake Malawi, Africa’s third largest lake, for their food and livelihoods. Similar findings were highlighted in a recent report from the Lake Victoria Basin, where three quarters of all endemic freshwater species are threatened. Local livelihoods in several East African countries dependent on resources from these lakes are threatened by unsustainable fishing.
The first reassessment of all 167 species of grouper – an economically valuable iconic type of sea bass occurring widely in the Atlantic, Caribbean and Indo-Pacific regions – confirms that 13% are threatened by overfishing. Local communities in developing tropical and sub-tropical countries are particularly impacted. Species on The IUCN Red List are periodically reassessed and consequently their conservation status is redefined based on newly available data. Improved information on population trends confirmed that the Nassau Grouper (Epinephelus striatus) is more threatened than previously thought, moving it from Endangered to Critically Endangered. This species is highly valued throughout the Caribbean, but overfishing has caused local declines of over 80% since the 1980s. Evaluations also highlighted that the now Vulnerable Camouflage (Epinephelus polyphekadion) and Gag (Mycteroperca microlepis) Groupers are of more concern than previously recognised.
“Depleting fish stocks are a serious concern for food security, particularly for coastal communities in developing countries,” says Yvonne Sadovy, Co-Chair of IUCN SSC Grouper and Wrasse Specialist Group. “While some commercial marine fisheries are sustainably managed, there are few such examples for groupers anywhere. Human population growth places excess demand on fish species important to subsistence livelihoods and niche markets, and pressures to export are exacerbating the situation. Species decline significantly affects the affordability of fish species around the world and reduces food security for the millions of people who depend on subsistence and small-scale fisheries for survival.”
Illegal logging threatens the Vene timber tree
Vene (Pterocarpus erinaceus), a globally important timber tree, enters The IUCN Red List as Endangered, threatened by felling to supply booming demand for household products. Native to West and Central Africa, the dark pink-brown timber from this tree is used globally for affordable furniture, flooring, household utensils and in construction. Between 2009 and 2014, there was a 15-fold increase in the trade of timber from the Vene tree, a type of African Rosewood, to meet high demand from China.
“As demand outweighs the legal supply of Vene timber, illegal trade networks are becoming increasingly lucrative,” says Sara Oldfield, Co-Chair of IUCN SSC Plant Specialist Group. “Less than 2% of the tree’s native forest is protected and much of its habitat lies within conflict zones, where conservation is not a priority. Protected areas need to be expanded to conserve this species.”
Illegal trade in Vene timber is widespread. Most range countries have legislation in place to protect the species, but this is often not enforced owing to a lack of resources and funding to control illegal trade. In Togo, a quarter of African Rosewood harvest was sourced illegally in 2008. A lack of awareness throughout the supply chain perpetuates the situation, threatening local livelihoods dependent on the tree for animal forage, fuel, clothes dye and medicinal use. Uses of the rosewood in Alzheimer’s disease and dementia treatments are also being researched.
All 20 Aquilaria Agarwood species have now been assessed for The IUCN Red List, and 13 are threatened with extinction. The wounded wood from the tree is used to produce perfume and fragrances and is one of the most expensive woods in the world. Due to their high economic value, Agarwood species are threatened with illegal harvesting in some areas. The Vulnerable Chinese Agarwood (Aquilaria sinensis) has suffered a 30% population decline over the past ten years. Between 2006 and 2011, customs in China’s Guangdong province reported 211 cases of illegal smuggling.
Titan Arum (Amorphophallus titanum) – Nicknamed the ‘Corpse Flower’ for its infamous stench, the Titan Arum(Amorphophallus titanum) – the world’s largest inflorescence – has been assessed for The IUCN Red List for the first time. The species, endemic to the island of Sumatra, Indonesia, is listed as Endangered, following an estimated population decline of 50% over the past 150 years. The main reasons for the decline are logging and the conversion of the plant’s native forest habitat to oil palm plantations; fewer than 1,000 individuals remain in the wild. By protecting the habitat of the Titan Arum, recovery is possible. A public education programme to highlight the threats to this iconic species will also help engage and encourage local stakeholders to help protect it.
Bolson Tortoise (Gopherus flavomarginatus) – The largest North American tortoise species, the Bolson Tortoise (Gopherus flavomarginatus), has changed status from Vulnerable to Critically Endangered on The IUCN Red List due to exploitation for subsistence consumption as well as widespread habitat loss. The population of the tortoise – found in isolated areas in Mexico’s Bolsón de Mapimí basin – has plummeted by over 64% in the past 30 years. The species is endangered under Mexican federal wildlife laws and captive breeding programmes aiming to reintroduce the species to New Mexico and Texas, USA, are being evaluated.