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2015 IUCN Species Highlights

12 January 2016
2015 IUCN species highlights
Photo: IUCN

Throughout 2015, the IUCN Global Species Programme and Species Survival Commission (SSC) have been working together tirelessly toward the mission of reducing the loss of diversity of life on earth. Below is a summary of some of the key events and achievements.

Updates to The IUCN Red List

The IUCN Red List was updated three times in 2015. The IUCN Red List now includes 79,837 assessed species, of which 23,250 are threatened with extinction, with habitat loss and degradation identified as the main threat to more than 80% of species assessed.


There were several exciting fundraising developments for The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 2015. We ran two successful online campaigns and raised USD 50,000 to help complete the IUCN Red List assessment of all bumblebee species, and to help with the assessment of all 750 species of carnivorous plants, many of which are highly threatened by poaching and habitat loss.


In October, the IUCN Red List joined the growing list of open access online scientific publications with its own International Standard Serial Number (ISSN 2307-8235). All current global assessments published on The IUCN Red List can now be downloaded as stand-alone PDF documents, each with its own unique DOI reference, making them permanently retrievable and easier to cite.

Two major new reports raised a warning flag for Europe’s biodiversity - the European Red List of Marine Fishes and the European Red List of Bees. A study led by IUCN made a big splash by measuring the impact of conservation action on the extinction risk of the world’s ungulates. The results were dramatic, showing that at least 65% of species would have deteriorated seriously in the absence of ongoing conservation efforts. The first complete assessment of freshwater shrimps revealed that 28% of the world’s 763 freshwater shrimp species are threatened with extinction. A paper on the state of the world’s cactus species by IUCN and partners revealed that 31% of the world’s cacti are threatened with extinction.

The conservation strategy for the Critically Endangered Crau Plain Grasshopper (Prionotropis rhodanica) developed by the Species Conservation Planning Sub‐Committee (SCPSC) and the IUCN SSC Grasshopper Specialist Group, was approved by the regional committee of the Ministry of Ecology, in effect making it official French policy.


In 2014, IUCN made two high‐level interventions on the Critically Endangered Vaquita (Phocoena sinus), requesting both the Premier of the Peoples’ Republic of China and the President of Mexico to take urgent measures to stop the illegal trade in Totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi) swim bladders (“maw”). As a result of these two interventions, significant progress has been made in 2015. China has been cooperating with Mexico and the United States to combat the illegal trade in Totoaba maw. Retail outlets selling the maw have been identified, and as of October 2015, proceedings started to prosecute two of them. In Mexico, effective measures to prevent the illegal gillnet fishery for Totoaba are finally being implemented.

In May 2015, at the request of the SSC Carnivorous Plant Specialist Group, the IUCN Director General and the SSC Chair wrote to the Prime Minister of Thailand concerning plans to expand a prison that would potentially wipe out a Critically Endangered pitcher plant, Nepenthes suratensis. The response of the prison authorities has been positive and plans are in place to avoid damage to the plants and to secure their protection.

Illegal wildlife trade

In 2015, the IUCN SSC continued to be heavily engaged in the work of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), including the 28th meeting of the Animals Committee, the 22nd meeting of Plants Committee, and ongoing participation in the Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) programme by the African and Asian Elephant Specialist Groups.

Work with United for Wildlife (UfW) also included a major focus on addressing the African Elephant poaching crisis. In addition, the African and Asian Rhino Specialist Groups have been advising on the development of the concept of a Rhino Conservation Bond (RCB), which is intended to be a new innovative funding mechanism to support rhino conservation at critical sites based on objective measures of conservation success. Other SSC contributions to UfW in 2015 include the production of 500 quiz questions for a ‘QuizUp’ social media game on ‘Wildlife in Crisis’ launched by UfW in October 2015 to raise awareness of illegal trade in wildlife among new and youth audiences.

The Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group (SULi) convened an international symposium called "Beyond Enforcement: Communities, Governance, Incentives and Sustainable Use in Combating Wildlife Crime". The symposium explored analyses and case studies on communities and wildlife crime and generated a set of key conclusions and recommendations, which SULi are now taking forward in a number of policy and decision‐making arenas.

On-the-ground conservation action

In 2015, IUCN’s SOS-Save Our Species grew its portfolio to almost 100 conservation projects including several new Rapid Action Grants and eleven Lemur projects under its Special Initiative SOS Lemurs. It also recorded a variety of successes from numerous current grantees working on the frontlines protecting more than 250 threatened species of plants and animals. For example, across Africa, different grantees reported on the arrests and prosecutions of various wildlife criminals trafficking ivory, animal skins, living parrots and cycads. In Liberia, a single camera trap photo of an Endangered Pygmy Hippopotamus (Choeropsis liberiensis) sparked the successful creation of the Wonegizi Protected Area.

Good progress has been made on IUCN’s new Tiger conservation initiative. The Integrated Tiger Habitat Conservation Programme (ITHCP), funded by KfW and the German Government, is working towards the goal set by the international community to double the number of Tigers in the wild by 2022. The first five conservation projects were launched in 2015 and EUR 6.24 million will be injected into key Tiger habitats and their surroundings in India (Manas National Park), Bhutan (Royal Manas National Park), Myanmar (Htamanti Wildlife Sanctuary region, Tanintharyi National Park) and Indonesia (Rimbang Baling landscape in Central Sumatra) to improve the management of habitats, support local communities with alternative livelihoods and tackle poaching.

See the full summary of IUCN Species highlights here.

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News Releases

Saving the World's most illegally traded wild mammal

23 January 2016
Sunda Pangolin
Photo: Dan Challender

Pangolins are the most heavily poached and trafficked mammals on the planet. Until recently, most people didn’t even know they existed. Earlier this year, a major new conservation initiative was launched to raise awareness of pangolins and address the key threats to their survival.

SOS Grantee Carly Waterman of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), an IUCN Member brings us up to speed on pangolins and conservation actions to save them from extinction.

What is a pangolin? Also known as scaly-anteaters, pangolins are the world’s only truly scaly mammals. They are adapted to feed exclusively on ants and termites, which they scoop up with their long, sticky tongues. When threatened they curl up into a tight ball, scales out. For millions of years this defence worked perfectly for the pangolin. But it offers no protection against human poachers, who are the main threat to the species today. More than a million pangolins are estimated to have been snatched from the wild in the past decade. In late November 2015, there was news of yet another pangolin confiscation – two tonnes of scales intercepted in Vietnam, smuggled from Taiwan disguised as frozen fish. That’s over 4,000 individuals. In December, authorities in Singapore seized 324 kg of pangolin scales from Nigeria en route to Laos, while in Thailand 587 kg of scales were confiscated. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

What is driving the illegal trade in pangolins? China and Vietnam, are willing to pay increasingly high prices for pangolin meat, which is being plated up at banquets as a luxury food. In traditional Chinese medicine, pangolin scales are also believed to treat a wide variety of conditions including psoriasis and poor circulation. Despite protective legislation across most of their range, pangolin trafficking is on the increase. Populations of Asian pangolins are estimated to have declined by up to 80 per cent in the past decade. As they become harder to find, traders are increasingly looking to Africa to meet the growing demand. Pangolins give birth to a single young, once a year. They cannot possibly withstand this level of exploitation for long.

What is being done to conserve pangolins? In 2014, the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group assessed all eight species of pangolin as threatened with extinction. As a result, they launched a global conservation strategy ‘Scaling up pangolin conservation’. This outlines the steps that need to be taken to clamp down on the illegal trade and secure the future of pangolins. The conservation strategy highlighted addressing demand for pangolins in the Far East as a major priority. Other recommendations included identifying and protecting pangolin strongholds in Asia and Africa, stepping up enforcement in range states and developing population monitoring protocols so that we can assess the impact of these interventions on pangolins.

What is Fondation Segré's Pangolin Conservation Initiative? Taking place in Cameroon, Thailand and China, the project will help to protect four species of pangolin – the giant, black-bellied and white-bellied pangolins in Cameroon, and the Sunda pangolin in Thailand. The initiative is supported by Fondation Segré and SOS - Save Our Species and is implemented by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

Dja Biosphere Reserve Photo: Oliver FankemIn Cameroon the focus is on the Dja Biosphere Reserve (DBR), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is home to important populations of great apes and forest elephant as well as pangolins. ZSL is supporting Cameroon’s Ministry of Forests and Wildlife (MINFOF) to protect pangolins and other trafficked species using the ‘SMART approach’.

SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) is an adaptive management tool to strengthen wildlife protection and monitoring. The project team is training and equipping eco-guards to undertake anti-poaching patrols using SMART, and reinforcing law enforcement capacity through training enforcement and customs officials. At the same time, the project team is empowering local communities to take action to combat wildlife crime through training anonymous informants, setting up surveillance networks and secure reporting mechanisms.

Setting up camera traps in Khlong Nakha Wildlife Sanctuary Photo: ZSLMeanwhile, in Thailand, the project team is supporting the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) to implement SMART in two sites suspected to be important pangolin strongholds – Salak Phra Conservation Landscape and Khlong Naka Wildlife Sanctuary. They are also trialling different survey methods with the aim of developing the first standardised monitoring protocols for the Sunda pangolin. It’s not an easy task – pangolins are highly cryptic – but once developed, the protocols will enable the team to track changes in the pangolin population over time and determine if the conservation interventions are successful.

On-the-ground protection and effective law enforcement are essential to reduce the poaching and trafficking of pangolins. However, unless demand for pangolins and their derivatives is reduced, the threat from trade will never be eliminated. The project is therefore also working in China to undertake research into the nature of the demand for pangolins in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, thought to be one of the primary markets for pangolins. Through gaining an understanding of the drivers of demand, the team can develop targeted behaviour change strategies to reduce the consumption of pangolins.

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One third of the world’s freshwater fish at risk from hydropower dam expansion

08 January 2016
Bhumipol Dam, Thailand
Photo: Thanyapat Wanitchanon_Shutterstock

A paper released today in Science shows that an unprecedented boom in construction of hydropower dams in the world’s most biodiverse river basins – the Amazon, Congo and Mekong – is placing one third of the world’s freshwater fish at risk.

Findings from the paper “Balancing hydropower and biodiversity in the Amazon, Congo, and Mekong", highlight that whilst the planned construction of around 450 new dams will provide an energy needs solution, there is currently a lack of accounting for the negative impacts to freshwater biodiversity. Insufficient consideration is given to the cumulative impacts from multiple dams in the same watershed and to the economic losses faced by communities who depend on these river systems for their livelihoods.

“Data from the IUCN Red List has helped to reveal the extent of this threat by providing information on the distributions of many of the world’s freshwater fishes” says William Darwall, Head, IUCN Freshwater Biodiversity Unit and co-author of the paper. “The challenge we now face is to ensure this type of information is effectively integrated within decision-making processes for planning and operating hydropower dams in order to minimise the potential threat to these species.”

Amazon basin Photo: Sergio GarridoAt least 346 new dams have been proposed in the Amazon river basin and the impacts of these will include not only the direct effects on the rivers and the species within them but also forced relocation of human populations and expanding deforestation associated with new roads.

Six large dams have been built on the upper Mekong since the mid 1990’s and at least 88 more are planned for the basin by 2030. To maintain food security for local populations due to projected fisheries losses, a further Probarbus Jullieni Mekong river Photo: IUCN Lao PDRexpansion of agricultural land between 19 and 63% would be needed.

The authors propose that in order to maximize societal benefits and minimize environmental degradation, more comprehensive and rigorous impact analyses must be mandated prior to the planning, financing and initiation of new dam construction. This should include basin-scale planning that account for cumulative impacts and climate change in order to minimize impacts in these biodiversity rich rivers.

Increasing availability of powerful analytical tools such as Environmental Flows, spatial data on biodiversity and our improved understanding of the ecological functioning of freshwater ecosystems provides new opportunities for governments, funding institutions and dam developers to select suitable sites for dams so as to minimize impacts on natural resources, ecosystem services, and rural communities.

“If the advice given in this policy piece is followed it should lead to a reduction in the impact of the global hydropower boom on freshwater biodiversity and its associated services,” says William Darwall. “Without more careful planning, we will see an increase in species extinctions and declines in fisheries and other ecosystem services.”

The full paper can be found here.

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