Agence France Presse (http://www.terradaily.com)

Nearly 16,000 species threatened with extinction: report

BANGKOK, Thailand (AFP) Nov 17, 2004

Nearly 16,000 of the world's plant and animal species face extinction largely because of the destructive behaviour of mankind, according to a major new environmental report out Wednesday.

Over-exploitation, climate change and habitat destruction are to blame for a crisis that has wiped out at least 27 species from the wild over the last two decades, according to the World Conservation Union's (IUCN) red list of threatened species.

The report says more than 7,000 animal species are threatened with extinction including 32 percent of amphibians, 42 percent of turtles and tortoises, 23 percent of mammals and 12 percent of birds.

Among the casualties since last year's report, the IUCN confirms the Hawaiian thrush has gone the way of the dodo with no sighting of the bird for 15 years. Costa Rica's golden toad has also been listed as extinct largely through climate change, pollution and disease.

More than 8,000 plants are listed as threatened with the St Helena olive tree the latest to be declared extinct after the last remaining seedling withered and died in November last year without any seeds kept.

"Every time we lose a species we break a life chain which has evolved over 3.5 billion years," said IUCN chief scientist Jeffrey McNeely.

Less is known about marine species but the report says early signs showed it was equally serious with fishermen overexploiting the seas to the point of extinction for many species.

The humphead wrasse is listed as endangered after its numbers declined by at least 50 percent over the last 30 years after being heavily fished in Southeast Asia for restaurants and the destruction of its coral reef habitat.

"Although 15,589 species are known to be threatened with extinction, this greatly underestimates the true number as only a fraction of known species have been assessed," said Craig Hilton-Taylor, who helped in compiling the report.

Because of the intervention of humans, the current extinction rate is estimated to be up to 1,000 times the expected natural one. Since 1500 AD, some 784 extinctions have been recorded, according to the IUCN.

"The current extinction phenomenon is one for which a single species, ours, appears to be almost wholly responsible," it said.

Indonesia, India, Brazil and China are among the countries with the most threatened mammals and birds. Plant species are declining rapidly in South and Central America, Central and West Africa and Southeast Asia.

Last year's report said 12,259 species were threatened but officials said the increase in threatened species of more than 3,300 was largely down to improved and expanded research work.

The release of the report is the latest in a series of gloomy assessments over the state of the world's plants and animals.

A three-year study published last month said more than 100 amphibian species are feared to have disappeared since 1980 largely because of pollution and global warming. Scientists feared hundreds more will become extinct in coming decades.

Amphibians, with their highly permeable skins, are particularly sensitive to changes to freshwater and air quality and considered one of nature's best indicators of environmental health.

The IUCN said half of the world's wetlands have been destroyed in the past century and more than a quarter of the world's coral reefs have also been lost.

However, the report said there were bright points with some species recovering after concerted conservation campaigns and others once thought extinct had been re-discovered.

The New Zealand storm petrel was presumed extinct but there were two separate sightings in 2003 and further ones this year.

And the European otter has moved out of the threatened categories amid signs of a recovery in western Europe and the former USSR.

The report was released to coincide with the opening of the World Conservation Congress in Bangkok with more than 5,000 people including activists and more than 50 environment ministers expected to attend over nine days.

The congress, bringing together scientists and experts from 181 countries, will debate the escalating extinction crisis and form a conservation blueprint for the next four years.

Copyright 2004 Agence France-Presse