There's positives and negatives in the most recent update to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species, which tracks endangered organisms. While we humans are still generally driving the world's largest extinction event since the dinosaurs met their fate, we're also seeing some positive feedback from our (admittedly not nearly equivalent) conservation efforts.
First, the bad news: Two rather charismatic animals are among those added to the dishearteningly long list of species at risk of extinction.
The okapi (Okapia johnstoni), a giraffe-like creature with zebra-striped legs, has been newly classified as "endangered." The report noted that okapi populations have been on the decline owing to a loss of habitat and poaching, much of which has been exacerbated by civil conflict and poverty in the area. It's particularly poignant because the okapi is a national symbol in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which makes it something of an emblem of diminishing global biodiveristy.
Elsewhere in Africa, the sub-Saharan white-winged flufftail (Sarothrura ayresi), an already rare bird, has seen its status upgraded to the most at-risk level of "critically endangered," with an estimated 700 mature white-winged flufftails left in the wild. The updated list recognised 200 bird species in this category, and beyond that there are only two further classifications, "extinct in the wild" and "extinct." A main reason for the flufftail's decline is, not surprisingly, habitat destruction.
It's no great revelation that humans are helping to push a large number of species to the brink, and of the 71,576 species IUCN has assessed by this point, 21,286 were considered threatened by extinction. But what's more surprising, perhaps, is that we're successfully using our powers for good in some cases.
It's easy to get defeatist about extinction rates and the seemingly Sisyphian task of conservation. The latest Red List report, however, offered a glimpse of hope for animals that were once teetering on the edge. The leatherback turtle, for exmaple, made its way from "critically endangered" to "vulnerable;" two species of albatross saw their populations increase enough to place them in the less urgent "near threatened" category; and the Island Fox, which is native to just some of the California Channel Islands and was once "critically endangered" is now also just "near threatened."
These observations are encouraging. They suggest that conservation efforts are actually working. In the case of the Island Fox's rebound, the report said it was "mainly due to successful conservation work of IUCN Member the U.S. National Park Service, which included captive breeding, reintroduction, vaccination against canine diseases and relocation of Golden Eagles." In the past, golden eagles contributed to the fox's decline as a non-native predator.
That's all to say it's worth putting in the time and effort to protect at-risk species, which in turn gives conservationists useful data on what's working best. At the same time, we can't afford to get smug.
Jane Smart, director of the IUCN biodiversity group praised the recent successes, but warned that the "overall message remains bleak. With each update, whilst we see some species improving in status, there is a significantly larger number of species appearing in the threatened categories," Smart noted. "The world must urgently scale up efforts to avert this devastating trend."