Quarter of world's mammals face oblivion

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The Independent Online
A quarter of the world's mammal species are threatened with extinction, according to an exhaustive analysis of the state of the planet's animal life.

The latest Red List from the IUCN, the World Conservation Union, published this week says 911 animal species are critically endangered - meaning they are in real danger of extinction within a few years. They range from mammals like the Siberian tiger to tiny insects and fish.

The total number of recorded extinctions among both plants and animals over the past 400 years is put at 1,265 species. But scientists agree that many more were wiped out by humanity before they were even discovered and described. The prime causes of the extinctions are destruction of natural habitats to create farmland and provide timber, hunting, collection for the pet trade and pollution.

In its 1994 Red List the IUCN, an international grouping of voluntary and government conservation bodies, judged 18 per cent of mammal species to be threatened - their population had fallen sharply and there was at least some danger of extinction.

That was based on incomplete information. Since then the mammals have joined the more numerous birds to become the only two classes of animal for which full assessments of conservation status has been done.

For birds, the threatened proportion is put at 11 per cent.

``We've now got a much fuller, more objective picture,'' said Georgina Mace of the Institute of Zoology in London, who helped produce the new list. ``The most significant finding is that 25 per cent of mammals are threatened.''

But she judged freshwater species of fish, reptile and amphibian around the world to be most endangered.

The Red List divides threatened species into three categories - critically endangered, endangered and vulnerable - based on population decline, scarcity and distribution. For mammals the respective numbers are 169 species, 315 and 612, and the percentages are 4, 7 and 14.

The number of individual animals left in the wild is a few hundred or, at most, a few thousand. The vaquita, a porpoise found in Mexico's Gulf of California, is down to just 96 individuals. In Brazil there is just one male Spix's macaw left in the wild - about 30 are in captivity.

Later this year the Cambridge-based World Conservation Monitoring Centre, which did much of the work on the Red List, will produce a list of threatened plants. Published with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, it will show that 33,730 higher plant species, 13 per cent of all that are known, are threatened.

`Going, Going, Gone', an Independent/World Wide Fund for Nature book on Britain's threatened wildlife, written by Nicholas Schoon, is published by Bookman Publishers next month.