On December 15th, BirdLife released its annual update on the status of the world’s birds, revealing which species are at higher risk of extinction and which species are slightly easier to breathe. In advance, the IUCN published its update for other taxa – and we are happy to share the news that an old member of the European fauna is roaming the forests and plains again. The European bison Bison bonasus is Europe’s largest land mammal. The emerging outlines formed an icon of prehistoric cave art and testified to their crucial role in the lives of our ancestors of hunters and gatherers. Today, thanks to continued conservation efforts, the species has moved from endangered to near threatened on the IUCN Red List.
This is an extremely inspiring development given the tragic history of the ungulate. The bison was critically endangered in the wild in the early 20th century and only survived in captivity until its reintroduction in the 1950s. But it would take many years of care and management before it really began to flourish. Eventually, the wild population rose from 1,800 to over 6,200 bison between 2003 and 2019, justifying the switch from Vulnerable to Near Threatened this year. Today there are 49 free range herds, with most of them found in Poland, Belarus and Russia.
European bison, copyright Jan Kelchtermans, from the Surfbirds galleries
Dr. Rafał Kowalczyk, co-author of the new assessment and member of the IUCN SSC Bison Section, emphasizes that the work is not yet complete: “Historically, European bison have mainly been reintroduced into forest habitats where they cannot find enough food in winter. However, when they move from the forest to agricultural areas, they often come into conflict with humans. To reduce the risk of conflict and the bison’s reliance on food supplements, it will be important to create protected areas with open meadows to graze on. “
This high profile achievement is encouraging evidence of the impact conservation can have when enough investment and resources are made. Road maps like these are all the more important as the extinction crisis is accelerating: In this year’s update of the Red List, 31 species were officially reported as extinct. This included 15 species of unique fish found only in Lake Lanao in the Philippines, whose deaths were due to invasive species, destructive fishing practices, and overfishing.
Also on the extinction list are three Central American frog species that were wiped out by the devastating chytridiomycosis disease: a fungal infection that is rapidly spreading across the world’s amphibians, and possibly made worse by climate change. Fortunately, efforts to protect critical habitats are helping several other amphibian species recover. Among them is the Oaxaca tree frog, Sarcohyla celata, which moved from Critically Endangered to Near Critic this year thanks to the commitment of local communities in Mexico.
“The conservation achievements in today’s Red List update are living proof that the world can set and achieve ambitious biodiversity goals. They also underline the need for real, measurable commitments in formulating and implementing the global framework for biodiversity beyond 2020, ”said Dr. Jane Smart, Global Director of the IUCN’s Biodiversity Conservation Group.
Preventing future extinctions must be a priority in the new global nature plan. With the change of the Tucuxi dolphin Sotalia fluviatilis from Data Deficient to Endangered this year, all freshwater dolphin species in the world are now classified as threatened. The Tucuxi, a small gray dolphin found in the Amazon river system, has been decimated by accidental catching of fishing gear, damming rivers, and pollution. To restore them, it is no longer necessary to use gill nets – curtains made of fishing nets hanging in the water – to reduce the number of dams and enforce the ban on deliberate dolphin hunting.
Even something as solid and familiar as oak is no longer protected from human pressure. A comprehensive assessment of this group of trees this year shows that almost a third – 113 of 430 species – are threatened with extinction. Land clearance for agriculture and logging are the most common threats in China, Mexico, and Southeast Asia. However, in the US, invasive alien species, disease, and climate change are major concerns.
While this news sounds daunting, the Red List is a far cry from the death penalty it appears to be. Instead, it is an early warning system that guides us where action is most needed. Species classified as threatened are becoming a focal point for scientists, governments and communities to focus their efforts. The Red List is far from an end point – it all starts here.