The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ is widely recognized as the most comprehensive, objective global approach for evaluating the conservation status of plant and animal species. From its small beginning, The IUCN Red List has grown in size and complexity and now plays an increasingly prominent role in guiding conservation activities of governments, NGOs and scientific institutions. The introduction in 1994 of a scientifically rigorous approach to determine risks of extinction that is applicable to all species, has become a world standard. In order to produce The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™, the IUCN Global Species Programme working with the IUCN Survival Commission (SSC) and with members of IUCN draws on and mobilizes a network of scientists and partner organizations working in almost every country in the world, who collectively hold what is likely the most complete scientific knowledge base on the biology and conservation status of species.
The IUCN Red List is underpinned by information management tools (the Species Information Service) which facilitate the collection, management and processing of species data from workshop to publication on The IUCN Red List.
The goal of The IUCN Red List is to:
This goal includes the "traditional" role of The IUCN Red List in identifying particular species at risk of extinction. While the role of The IUCN Red List in underpinning priority-setting processes for single species remains of critical importance, the goal has been expanded to encompass the use of data from the Red List for multi-species analyses in order to identify and monitor trends in species status and to catalyse appropriate conservation action.
To achieve this goal, The IUCN Red List aims to:
The high profile, standards and scientific integrity of The IUCN Red List are maintained in the following ways:
IUCN's work on Red List assessments is coordinated by the staff of the Global Species Programme working closely with the network of expert volunteers in the SSC. This work is supported through Global Species Assessment projects, and through partnerships with other organizations, such as Conservation International, BirdLife International, NatureServe, the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, Botanical Gardens Conservation International, Texas A&M University, Sapienza University of Rome, and the Zoological Society of London (click the links for further details about the assessment process and the governance aspects of the IUCN Red List). The processes that have been established help to maintain the high profile and scientific integrity of the IUCN Red List.
The whole process for completing an assessment, submitting it for consideration, to eventual publication on the IUCN Red List is being restructured to improve efficiency and the faster turn-around of assessments, especially with the rapidly increasing number of assessments being completed. The current process is outlined under The Red List Assessment Process page, but in the sections below some specific parts of the process are explained in more detail.
The improved objectivity of the 1994 IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria revealed that the previously ad hoc process of including species on the Red List had to change. To achieve this, Red List Authorities have been established for all major taxonomic groups included on the IUCN Red List. In most cases, the Red List Authority (RLA) is the SSC Specialist Group responsible for the species, group of species or specific geographic area. But there are exceptions, for example in the case of birds BirdLife International is the designated RLA. The list and contact details for all appointed red List Authorities are available from the SSC Directory.
In cases where the SSC and its partner networks do not cover a particular taxonomic group or geographic region, the Red List Unit staff working together with other IUCN Global Species Programme staff and the Red List Partners will recommend the appointment of other appropriate organizations or networks as Red List Authorities or National Red List Advisory Groups (which encompasses the newly formed National Red List Alliance). The latter structure provides the much-needed link between the many national Red List initiatives and The IUCN Red List.
The role of the Red List Authorities is to ensure that all species within their jurisdiction are correctly assessed against the IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria at least once every ten years and, if possible, every five years (note, any assessments that are older than ten years are flagged as 'needs updating', as the status and any supporting documentation provided may no longer be correct; such assessments should be used with caution). All assessments should also include the necessary required supporting information (see below) and should be done in as consultative manner as is possible. The intention is that no new species assessment will be included on The IUCN Red List until it has been reviewed by one or more members of an appointed Red List Authority or by at least one Reviewers appointed by IUCN Global Species Programme staff. This review system places greater responsibility on the SSC network and its partners to ensure that what appears on The IUCN Red List is credible and scientifically accurate.
The listings in the 1996 and 1997 IUCN Red Lists were poorly documented and as a result, the assessments were largely unsubstantiated. To rectify this weakness, a system of supporting information requirements has been adopted with different tiers of information requirements depending on the taxonomic group being assessed (see Data Organization). All taxa added to the Red List and any listings that are changed must be documented following these requirements. Red List Authorities have been asked to provide documentation for all of their taxa on The IUCN Red List. The inclusion of this extra documentation to some extent represents a return to the format of the earlier IUCN Red Data Books produced before the Red List series began in 1986. However, with the move of The IUCN Red List to a purely electronic medium, the maintenance and continual updating of such documentation is made much easier. Despite the increased level of supporting information and the growing similarity to the format of the earlier Red Data Books, the term 'Red List' is maintained to avoid any confusion.
Another weakness of The IUCN Red List has been the lack of sufficiently clear taxonomic standards. Taxonomic standards are being adopted (see under Information Sources and Quality). All new species' listings, and any revisions to listings, must be in accordance with these taxonomic standards, but deviations may be permitted provided they are fully documented and substantiated.
The supporting information requirements and taxonomic standards are reviewed at regular intervals. The supporting information and taxonomic validation help make the listing process more transparent and open to challenge, thus increasing the scientific integrity and authority of The IUCN Red List. The entire process is controlled through the IUCN Species Information Service (SIS) to ensure efficient management and integration of relevant data.
Status assessments presented in The IUCN Red List are open to challenge. Petitions may be made against particular listings. However, such petitions may only be made on the basis of the Red List Categories and Criteria and in reference to any supporting documentation accompanying the listing. It is not possible to change listings for political, emotional, economic, or other reasons. The appeals process begins with discussions between the relevant Red List Authority and the petitioners. Every effort should be made to reach agreement within the standard Red Listing process. Only if the two groups cannot come to any agreement will the matter be referred to the IUCN SSC Standards & Petitions Sub-committee.
For more details on the petitions process see the document on the Procedure for Handling of Petitions. Any species under petition are indicated by the label "(petitioned)" as an annotation to the Red List Category and Criteria on the search results pages and the species fact sheets. Note that the annotation will only appear if there is a Petition underway.
The IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria were extensively reviewed between 1997 and 1999. The revised Categories and Criteria (IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria: Version 3.1) were adopted by IUCN Council in February 2000 and the revised system came into use in 2001. All assessments submitted to The IUCN Red List must use this system.
Guidelines on how to use the IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria have been developed and these can be downloaded from here.
Regional Application Guidelines:
Guidelines on the application of the IUCN Red List Criteria at sub-national, national or regional levels have also been developed and are available from here. (Assessments using these guidelines do not appear on the IUCN Red List).
Rising to the global challenge of reducing biodiversity loss by 2010 (as adopted by the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)) requires tools to monitor our progress and highlight where we need to focus our conservation efforts. Hence the driving focus of the IUCN Global Species Programme and SSC over the next few years will be to develop The IUCN Red List in a manner that allows a Red List Index to be calculated and measured over time. The Red List Index played a key role in tracking progress towards the 2010 target and has been adopted by CBD to track progress on seven of the 20 Aitchi Biodiversity Targets. Red List Indices have been produced which chart overall changes in the threat status of the world's amphibians, birds, warm-water reef-building corals and mammals (the major taxonomic groups that have been completely assessed more than once). These are based on the number of species that moved between categories as a result of genuine changes in threat status (excluding moves resulting from improved knowledge or taxonomic changes).
Further information about the IUCN Red List Index and how it is calculated can be found in the following papers:
In order for the Red List Indices to be calculated from the IUCN Red List, two important changes need to be implemented: a) the further documentation of species on the Red List as described above and b) the expansion of the species groups covered by the Red List (see below). The taxonomic coverage of the Red List will be improved in part in the coming years through the Sampled Red List Index (SRLI) approach. This is being developed based on a sample of species from selected taxonomic groups to provide trends in extinction risk that are more representative of global biodiversity.
Both the IUCN Red List Index and the Sampled Red List Index are central to monitoring the progress of global efforts to reduce biodiversity loss and will be critical for guiding decision makers as to what and where conservation action is necessary.
The IUCN Global Species Programme is currently managing data on over 79,000 species, but this number set to increase substantially in the next few years as we strive to meet the 160,000 species target to make The IUCN Red List a "Barometer of Life". Of the +79,000, approximately 64,000 species are currently well documented, with information on ecology, population size, threats, conservation actions and utilization. There are also over 54,000 species with distribution maps. The data cover non-threatened as well as threatened species, and certain taxonomic groups have been completely, or almost completely assessed (e.g. mammals, birds, amphibians, freshwater crabs, warm-water reef building corals, sharks and rays, groupers, wrasses, lobsters, conifers and cycads). For more details on groups covered see details under the Summary Statistics.
There are some important limitations to the current dataset. The species groups covered so far are biased towards terrestrial, and in particular forest, ecosystems. Among the better-documented species, there is also a strong bias towards animals, rather than plants, but steps are underway to rectify these biases.
The video below explains what The IUCN Red List is, how it is used, and how we are trying to expand the taxonomic and geographic coverage so that the Red List can reach its full potential as a Barometer of Life.
The IUCN Red List Committee has agreed and adopted a Strategic Plan for the Red List for the period 2013 – 2020. Result 1 of the Strategic Plan addresses the taxonomic and geographic expansion of The IUCN Red List. Under this Result a number of new Global Species Assessment Projects to address these biases have been agreed (see Biodiversity Assessments and Indicators work on the IUCN web site). In addition a number of new targets have been identified and agreed in collaboration with the IUCN SSC's Invertebrate Conservation, Marine Conservation and Plant Conservation Sub-Committees. However, both the pace and the extent of further developing the biodiversity assessments work is hugely constrained by the limited availability of financial resources.
Plant species – Although there are over 19,000 plant species on The IUCN Red List, many of the older assessments from 1998 remain to be properly documented. To help address this gap, IUCN is pursuing global assessments of plant species of value to people including species of high economic value (the Plants for People project). The conifer and cycad species on the IUCN Red List have been assessed twice and are now all fully documented. IUCN has also developed a tool to assist with preliminary assessments of plant species as was called for in the original Target 2 of the CBD Global Strategy for Plant Conservation. This can be used to quickly help identify groups of plants that require full assessment. For further information see IUCN SSC plant conservation work.
Freshwater species – The freshwater system represents the most threatened of all ecosystems, and many freshwater species have a very high livelihood value for local human communities. IUCN's freshwater focus is on the following taxonomic groups: fish; molluscs; crabs and crayfish; and dragonflies. Global assessment of these groups is being pursued through a series of regional projects, such as one for Africa that is currently being implemented (see the IUCN Freshwater Biodiversity Unit for further details).
Marine species – The marine realm is very poorly covered in the IUCN Red List, comprising less than 12% of the species included. IUCN has identified priority taxonomic groups of marine fish, invertebrates, plants (mangroves and seagrasses) and macro-algae (seaweeds). If these priority groups can be assessed, the number of marine species on the IUCN Red List will be increased more than six-fold. For further details about the Global Marine Species Assessment see IUCN Marine Conservation Sub-Committee and Global Marine Species Assessment site.
Arid and semi-arid species – With the severe degradation of land across the globe exacerbated by the impacts of global climate change, arid and semi-arid systems are expanding. At present, arid ecosystems are very poorly covered by the species groups assessed so far, and are also increasingly becoming degraded in most parts of the world. A complete assessment of all the world's +10,000 reptile species is recommended to fill this gap (this would also complete the assessment of all terrestrial vertebrates). The reptile assessment is being initiated through a series of regional projects and good progress is being made with over 4,000 species now assessed.
As these additional species are included on the Red List and the biases in the data are reduced, the IUCN biodiversity assessments will provide an even more solid basis for conducting worldwide analyses. In addition, these data will provide the basis for the indicators needed to measure progress towards the achievement of the CBD's 2020 Aitchi Biodiversity Targets and beyond, as well as the United Nations 2015 Millennium Development Goals, particularly Goal 7 on ensuring environmental sustainability through the reduction of biodiversity loss, and whatever new Sustainable Development Goals are adopted after 2015.
The graph below shows current progress towards achieving the target of having at least 160,000 assessments published on The IUCN Red List by the end of 2020.
The massive expansion of the Red List coverage cannot be achieved and maintained by the IUCN Global Species Programme and SSC alone. As a result, other organizations were approached to help with the expansion and a formal agreement on co-operation was negotiated. This resulted in the formation of the Red List Consortium in 2000. Following an external review of the Consortium in 2004 all the parties agreed to move to a looser Red List Partnership arrangement involving bilateral or multi-lateral agreements as required. The partners currently involved in supporting the Red List and the wider biodiversity assessments initiative include: IUCN (in particular the Global Species Programme and the Species Survival Commission), BirdLife International, Botanical Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), Conservation International (CI), Microsoft, NatureServe, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, Texas A&M University, the Institute of Zoology at the Zoological Society of London, Sapienza University of Rome, and WildScreen. A brief summary of the work done by each Partner can be found here, but more detailed information is available from each of the Partners websites.
The Red List Committee oversees and guides the work of the Species Survival Commission (SSC) on biodiversity assessments. This includes responsibility for The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ and advising on the functioning of the Species Information Service (SIS).
The Red List Committee sets the standards of scientific quality for the IUCN SSC’s work on biodiversity assessments, develops guidelines on the application of these standards, ensures that evaluations of petitions against the listing of particular taxa on The IUCN Red List are carried out professionally and impartially, and builds collaboration with other organizations working on biodiversity assessments.
The Red List Committee includes representatives of the Red List Partnership, the IUCN Species Survival Commission, and the IUCN Global Species Programme, as well as several co-opted members. Details on the Membership of the Red List Committee and its various Working Groups together with their respective Terms of Reference and other key documents are available from the IUCN SSC website.
For further information about The IUCN Red List and for other Red List-related stories and results see http://www.iucn.org/about/work/programmes/species/our_work/the_iucn_red_list/.
The IUCN Red List has been guiding conservation since 1964, but it can do much more with a broader base of assessments. The aim is to assess to have at least 160,000 species assessed on The IUCN Red List by 2020. To achieve that target, we are running a campaign (see support.iucnredlist.org/take-action) to increase support for The IUCN Red List, so please spread the word and get involved.