Cape Town — A fifth of the world’s vertebrates are facing the fate of the quagga, but many more species would be threatened with extinction if it were not for conservation efforts, according to a global assessment published yesterday by the journal Science.
Local vertebrates facing an increasing threat include the African penguin and Botha’s lark, and many indigenous fish species also face an uncertain future.
“We (the conservation community) have done a remarkable job of telling the world that everything is doomed, to the point where nobody believes we can do anything about it. But this is nonsense. Conservation can and does work,” said Dr Michael Hoffmann, senior scientific officer with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission and one of the paper’s lead authors.
The issue was how to tackle the “tremendous shortfall relative to the scale of the problem. One of the greatest conservation successes of all, the recovery of the southern white rhinoceros, owes everything to conservation efforts within SA,” he said.
There were less than than 50 southern white rhinos surviving in 1895, but the creation of Africa’s first game reserves kicked off a series of initiatives that saw the population recover to reach more than 20 000 by the end of 2008, of which 18 350 were in SA, said Dr Richard Emslie, scientific officer for the IUCN’s African rhino specialist group and one of the paper’s contributors.
“If people had sat back and done nothing, the floodgates would have opened. It is possible to make a difference,” he said yesterday. “If you can protect rhinos, there are a lot of other biodiversity benefits: a large area that is secured (for rhinos) means other life there is likely to be safe.”
He cautioned against complacency, warning rhino continued to face threats from poaching.
The study published in Science found increasing numbers of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians had moved closer to extinction in recent decades.
Scientists analysed data on more than 25000 vertebrate species categorised by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: a fifth were classed as threatened and the number was increasing. On average, 50 species moved closer to extinction each decade.
The proportion of vertebrates under threat ranges from 13% of birds to 41% of amphibians. The scientists assessed the threats facing cycad species, many of which are endemic to SA, and found 63% faced an uncertain future. Most declines in species numbers are reversible, said the scientists, who estimated the declines would have been 18% worse for birds and mammals if there had been no attempts at conservation.
The paper has been released as delegates from around the world are meeting in Nagoya, Japan, to discuss ways to protect global biodiversity and share the benefits arising from its exploitation.