UNITED NATIONS -- The global crisis for endangered species is more serious than the financial meltdown, with numbers of imperiled animals and plants rising at record rates, scientists are warning in a report released today.
In its latest four-year assessment of endangered species, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has added several new entries to the Red List of Threatened Species. Judging from the list's expansion, the report warns, the world is unlikely to meet a goal of reversing a trend toward species depletion by 2010.
The report, "Wildlife in a Changing World," estimates that 22 percent of known mammals are either facing the threat of extinction or are already extinct. It also found great stress for amphibians, with more than 30 percent classified as threatened or extinct.
"We now know that nearly one quarter of the world's mammals, nearly one third of amphibians and more than 1 in 8 of all bird species are at risk of extinction," IUCN warns. "This allows us to come to the stark conclusion that wildlife ... is in trouble."
The 2008 review covers 44,837 species, up from 38,047 in 2004 and 16,507 in 2000. Thus far, IUCN has recorded 869 separate cases of plant and animal extinctions, including 804 wiped out and 65 others considered extinct in the wild.
Scientists say the numbers of total recorded extinctions could rise to 1,159 if they add 290 or so critically endangered species now labeled "possibly extinct." There are insufficient data on another 5,561 species.
Recent additions to the list of extinctions are large marine mammals.
Last year's review led scientists to conclude that the Japanese sea lion, which was once abundant in northeast Asia, is now extinct. IUCN also believes the Caribbean monk seal is also gone, as none have been seen alive since the 1950s. Hunting and stress from fishing fleets are believed to have eliminated both animals. And in 2007, scientists determined that the Yangtze river dolphin was driven to extinction by pollution and development.
The newest report also includes assessments of 845 species of corals. Already more than a quarter are considered threatened, with climate change added to the list of threats they face. Still, IUCN cautions that the health of marine life could be worse than expected, as relatively little is known about biodiversity in the oceans.
"The conservation status for most of the world's species remains poorly known, and there is a strong bias in those that have been assessed so far towards terrestrial vertebrates and plants and in particular those species found in biologically well-studied parts of the world," the report says.
Though the overall picture is bleak, scientist also point to signs that conservation efforts are bringing back from the brink some animals previously facing annihilation.
In North America, the Fish and Wildlife Service is credited with probably saving the black-footed ferret from being classified as extinct in the wild to endangered after a 10-year effort to reintroduce the species to eight Western states and Mexico. A conservation effort to save a species of wild horse in Mongolia also saw that animal being bumped from from extinct in the wild to "critically endangered."
The Red List is used as a benchmark for several bilateral and U.N. treaties aimed at wildlife protection, including the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and the Convention on Biological Diversity. Data from the list are also used by scientists working under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change to help them track how global warming could be affecting wild flora and fauna.
The species assessment so far is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of assessing global biodiversity. In total, about 1.8 million separate species have been described; estimates of the total number in existence range from 2 million to 100 million.