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25% of Wild Mammal Species Face Extinction

The red colobus monkey is among the primates that are more imperiled than smaller mammals.
The red colobus monkey is among the primates that are more imperiled than smaller mammals. (Photo By Tom Struhsaker)
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By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 7, 2008

BARCELONA, Oct. 6 -- At least a quarter of the world's wild mammal species are at risk of extinction, according to a comprehensive global survey released here Monday.

The new assessment -- which took 1,700 experts in 130 countries five years to complete -- paints "a bleak picture," leaders of the project wrote in a paper being published in the journal Science. The overview, made public at the quadrennial World Conservation Congress of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), covers all 5,487 wild species identified since 1500. It is the most thorough tally of land and marine mammals since 1996.

"Mammals are definitely declining, and the driving factors are habitat destruction and over-harvesting," said Jan Schipper, the paper's lead writer and the IUCN's global mammals assessment coordinator. The researchers concluded that 25 percent of the mammal species for which they had sufficient data are threatened with extinction, but Schipper added that the figure could be as high as 36 percent because information on some species is so scarce.

Land and marine mammals face different threats, the scientists said, and large mammals are more vulnerable than small ones. For land species, habitat loss and hunting represent the greatest danger, while marine mammals are more threatened by unintentional killing by pollution, ship strikes and being caught in fishing nets.

While large species such as primates (including the Sumatran orangutan and red colobus monkeys in Africa) and ungulates (hoofed animals such as Africa's Dama gazelle and the Malaysian tapir) may seem more physically imposing, the researchers wrote that these animals are more imperiled than smaller creatures such as rodents and bats because they "tend to have lower population densities, slower life histories, and larger home ranges, and are more likely to be hunted."

Primates face some of the most intense pressures: According to the survey, 79 percent of primates in South and Southeast Asia are facing extinction.

Conservation International President Russell A. Mittermeier, one of the paper's writers and a primate specialist, said animals in the region are being hit with "a triple whammy."

"It's not that surprising, given the high population pressures, the level of habitat destruction, and the fairly extreme hunting of primates for food and medicinal purposes," he said in an interview. He added that some areas in Vietnam and Cambodia are facing "an empty forest syndrome," as even once-populous species such as the crab-eating macaque, or temple monkey, are "actually getting vacuumed out of some areas where it was common."

In some cases, the scientists have a precise sense of how imperiled a species has become: There are 19 Hainan gibbons left in the wild on the island off China's southeast coast, Mittermeier said, which actually counts as progress because there used to be just a dozen.

With others, including the beaked whale and the jaguar, researchers have a much vaguer idea of their numbers despite technological advances -- such as satellite and radio tagging, camera tracking and satellite-based GPS (global positioning system) mapping. The authors of the assessment wrote that most land mammals occupy "areas smaller than the United Kingdom," while "the range of most marine mammals is smaller than one-fifth of the Indian Ocean."

The report on mammals came on the same day that the IUCN updated its "Red List" -- a separate periodic survey of nearly 45,000 species of plants and animals -- and concluded that 32 percent are threatened with extinction. Its scientists added 20 of the world's 161 species of grouper to the list of those at risk of extinction, along with several tarantula species.

Jonathan Baillie, who directs conservation programs at the Zoological Society of London, said: "It's a continual decline in all cases."


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