More Than Endangered: Understanding Conservation Status

The word “endangered” is recognized as meaning close to extinction, but that’s not the only label given to species in need. There are actually seven distinct classifications used to accurately describe a species’ status. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species categorizes species based on specific criteria to determine their risk of global extinction. If you’re interested in wildlife conservation, understanding what each status means is your first step in making a positive difference for the world’s wildlife.

Extinct in the Wild

Species including the Pére David’s deer and the Guam kingfisher have completely disappeared from their natural habitats. They survive only in captivity and are found in zoos and wildlife refuges. These species are on the brink of total extinction, and most have little to no hope of recovering.

The Pinta Island tortoise is an example of an animal species that recently went from “extinct in the wild” to extinct. Lonesome George was the only tortoise of his kind when he died in 2012. He’s now a symbol for conservation to remind the world of the devastating affects of habitat loss.

Critically Endangered

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Determining a species’ conservation status is about more than population size. The critically endangered ivory-billed woodpecker has an estimated population of less than 50, but the orangutan, also considered critically endangered, numbers around 61,000. The reasoning behind their shared status has more to do with global threats than overall numbers.

The IUCN considers factors including rate of habitat loss and population density within suitable environments. The justification for the orangutan’s conservation status is explained through the extreme fragmentation and rapid depletion of the forests they call home. It’s predicted that 62% of orangutan habitat will be destroyed for commercial logging and development by the year 2025.

Endangered

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As the most recognized conservation status, the label “endangered” is given to species experiencing more than a 25% population decline over three generations or 10 years—whichever comes first. Endangered species are at a high risk of extinction and are heavily hunted, experience habitat loss, are over utilized for commercial purposes, and/or are prone to disease or predation.

The Asian elephant, Bengal tiger, and chimpanzee are all listed as endangered species. The Asian elephant population has experienced a 50% decline over the last 60 years, and the combination of a never-ending demand for ivory and human encroachment leaves little hope for improvement.

Vulnerable

There are currently 505 mammals classified as vulnerable by the UICN. The distinction means they are “likely to become endangered” unless circumstances change. Species are considered vulnerable when there is an inferred or expected decrease in population of 20% over three generations or 10 years. The hope for this classification is to bring attention to species in need and provide conservation support to halt population decline.

The African elephant was previously listed as endangered, but an assessment in 2004 qualified them for a change in status. Unlike their cousins in Asia, the number of African elephants is increasing at an average annual rate of 4%, and they’ve been added to the vulnerable category.

Near Threatened

The term “near threatened” is given to species that are at risk of being threatened by extinction in the near future. Many of the species in this category depend on conservation efforts to keep their populations stable. Their numbers don’t qualify as threatened or endangered, but data collected about habitat loss and reproduction rate indicates the decline in status could only be a matter of time.

With over 6 million square kilometers of potential habitat, the jaguar is an example of a near threatened species. Subpopulations are thriving in the Amazon basin rainforest, but others are facing habitat loss and starvation due to the poaching of prey. Overall, the jaguar population is declining, and future reevaluations will likely change their conservation status.

Least Concern

The “least concern” species are those that have been evaluated by IUCN but do not qualify for the other conservation categories. Approximately 14,000 animal species have been given this distinction. Accessors determine the populations to be stable with little or no threat to their habitat. They’re capable of surviving without conservation intervention, but populations are evaluated every few years to ensure accuracy. The brown bear, common bottlenose dolphin, and swift fox are all classified as least concern.

The conservation status system and evaluation process is designed to identify the animals most at risk of global extinction. The goal is to give the public clear information about the state of Earth’s wildlife and provide valuable data to help improve conservation efforts. Visit IUCN online to learn more, and search for the conservation status of a specific species.