By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 13, 2007; A10
Habitat loss, climate change and infectious diseases are pushing a growing number of species toward extinction, according to a report yesterday by the World Conservation Union.
The organization's 2007 "Red List," the most sweeping annual scientific assessment of the world's animals and plants, now lists 16,306 species as threatened with extinction, up from 16,118 last year. The addition of nearly 200 imperiled species to the list reflects the reality that the more scientists learn about the status of the world's millions of species, the more they find that appear to be in trouble, experts said.
"We expect the situation across taxonomic groups to be, quite honest, quite bleak. One needs to know how bleak," Jane Smart, who heads the group's species program, said in an interview. "If we received a lot more money, we would have a lot more species on the Red List."
The organization, which is based in Switzerland and is formally known as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), enlists several thousand scientists to evaluate the state of animals and plants as varied as the imperiled Yangtze River dolphin and Central Asia's wild apricot. After subjecting the assessments to a peer-review process, the group decides whether a species deserves to be listed as vulnerable to extinction, endangered, critically endangered -- or extinct.
Conservation advocates said the new report had a few bright spots, such as North American reptiles doing relatively well. But in a news conference in Washington yesterday, they painted a largely grim picture of how factors such as armed conflict and warming seas are shrinking the planet's natural heritage.
"Let's not kid ourselves, when it comes to biodiversity worldwide, the news generally is not good," said Michael Hoffman, a program officer in IUCN's biodiversity assessment unit.
Great apes are under increasing pressure from both hunting and disease, the report said, their numbers decimated by the bush-meat trade and by the Ebola virus. The Western gorilla population has declined more than 60 percent over the past 25 years and is now considered critically endangered; during the past 15 years, roughly one-third of gorillas that died in protected areas fell prey to the lethal virus.
Between 2003 and 2005, 55 percent of the Western gorillas in the Congo Republic's Odzala National Park died of the virus.
Russell Mittermeier, who chairs IUCN's primate specialist group, noted that protected areas are not always effective -- rebels have slaughtered gorillas in a preserve that straddles the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda -- but he defended wildlife preserves as essential.
"The world's endangered species are simply not going to survive without protected areas," said Mittermeier, who is also president of Conservation International.
Even in remote places, plants and animals are suffering from the onslaught of broader environmental forces such as climate change. Having completed its first comprehensive survey of Galapagos corals since the Red List started in the 1960s, IUCN experts identified a third of the native species as at risk of extinction. This year is the first time corals have been listed.
The group is surveying another 750 reef-building coral species in the Caribbean, the Indo-Pacific, the eastern tropical Pacific and southern Brazil, said Suzanne Livingstone, IUCN's global marine species assessment officer, who added that roughly a third of them might make it onto next year's list.
"There's probably going to be a similar trend over all corals, and that's largely because of climate change," she said.