For half a century, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List has been tracking creatures and their risk of extinction. After attending an event in Paris to mark the anniversary, K magazine reports on the latest efforts to protect endangered species….
The black musselcracker, a large, solitary fish with a bulbous nose and a deep frown, resembles a bad-tempered cartoon animal. But if measures aren’t taken to protect it, future generations might only see it in cartoons. Endemic to South Africa, its population has declined precipitously due to overfishing, and its vulnerable status has earned it the attention of the Red List.
Created in 1964 by The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Red List of Threatened Species is 50 years old. The IUCN has marked the milestone with events around the world, including a Biophilia Ball in London, proclaimed the ‘‘biggest wildlife party ever held’’ in the British capital.
Setting out to be a ‘‘barometer of life,’’ the Red List is the most exhaustive source of information on the relative risk of extinction of flora, fauna and fungi worldwide. Creatures on it range from the Javan rhinoceros, of whom there are fewer than 50 alive, to the Triboniophorous graeffei, a fluorescent pink slug that lives on Australia’s Mount Kaputar, an area highly vulnerable to climate change.
The Saint Helena Giant Earwig (from an island of the same name) was officially declared extinct this year. Ecologists believe it couldn’t survive when the stones under which it lived were removed for construction.
The Red List is a valuable tool for planning conservation action, conducting scientific research, distributing financial resources and drawing up environmental accords. Its specialists have evaluated 73,686 species and found that more than 22,000 — nearly a third — are in danger of extinction.
These partners mean business
On 11th December, friends and representatives of the IUCN, as well as some environmentally-minded business leaders, gathered at The Walt Disney Company’s offices in Paris to celebrate the Red List and see Disneynature’s new film, Bears. Companies have used philanthropy to support green initiatives for some time; formal partnerships between business and environmentalists are a more recent phenomenon.
An increasing number of environmental groups are welcoming these partnerships, knowing that the corporate world has financial clout and manages much of the world’s land. Corporations are starting to understand that they have a responsibility towards nature — and also that a loss of ecosystems and biodiversity poses major risks to their bottom line.
Jean-Christophe Vié, deputy director of the IUCN’s Species Programme, says, “We expect businesses to play an active role. For the moment, only a fraction of companies are committing themselves to the extent that they should.”
Aside from Disney, the companies that came to the Paris event included the cosmetics brand Klorane, which is working to save the endangered Calendula Maritima plant, and BNP Paribas, a French bank that is exerting pressure on palm oil producers to stop deforestation.
Also present was Dr. Helen Crowley, a zoologist who worked at the Wildlife Conservation Society before becoming Kering’s conservation and ecosystem services specialist. She explained to the audience that from a corporate perspective, being sustainable means finding business opportunities to turn a company’s negative impact on the environment into a positive one.
Fewer crocodile tears
The luxury industry has a unique position in biodiversity conservation, because it uses the skins from endangered species. The fact that reptiles they can be made into shoes or handbags makes them vulnerable. But at the same time, their market value goes a long way towards protecting their species.
Crocodiles saw their numbers drop precipitously after the Second World War, as demand for leather soared, sparking a hunting frenzy. In 1971, when all 23 species of crocodilians were either endangered or threatened, the IUCN formed a Crocodile Specialist Group. It’s been a qualified success: eight species are now abundant enough for well-regulated harvests.
One effective measure has been ranching — collecting crocodile eggs in the wild and raising them on farms. The eggs become a source of income for local populations, encouraging them to protect the animals’ habitat, as habitat destruction is often a greater threat to wildlife than hunting or poaching. “Ranching has allowed us to save quite a few species of crocodiles,” says Vié.
Demand for python skin has also skyrocketed over the past decade, so they, too, must be carefully tracked and managed. “Snakes are a difficult species to monitor,” Crowley notes. “You can’t just go into the forest and count them, because they are really cryptic and difficult to find.”
In 2013, Kering and Gucci teamed up with the IUCN’s Boa & Python Specialist Group (BPSG) and the International Trade Centre to create the Python Conservation Partnership (PCP). It is conducting studies around sustainability, transparency, animal welfare and local livelihoods in order to improve the python trade and push for change across the industry.
“To promote trade sustainability directly means to promote python conservation, and this is the main reason we engaged with the industry,” says the BPSG’s chair, Tomas Waller.
One area of study has been the feasibility of captive breeding, since farms can be used as a front to launder wild-caught snakes. Results of the PCP research have been comforting, Waller says. “We were able to challenge our former ideas and confirm that large-scale production of python skins in captivity is indeed possible and, in fact, is taking place in several south-east Asian countries.” To address compliance concerns, the PCP is studying ways to tell the difference between skins that are farmed or wild, such as testing skin samples for diet.
Yes, in my backyard
The PCP is also looking at how valuable the python trade is for local communities. The extent to which local people can be key players in habitat protection was recently highlighted in Madagascar, one of the first countries to practise wild crocodile egg collection. Its system worked well for years but then flagged, and in 2010, an international moratorium was placed on exports. The ban lasted four years.
In October 2014, Kering and the IUCN’s Crocodile Specialist Group, along with the International Trade Centre, joined forces to help the Government of Madagascar monitor and manage the trade of Madagascar’s Nile crocodiles.
What’s revealing is that during the moratorium, local villagers started destroying crocodile eggs. “Who wants crocodiles in their backyard?” Crowley says. “Nobody does. They tolerate crocodiles — and they won’t turn their habitat into rice fields and destroy their nests when they can get cash for eggs. If you want people to protect something, there has to be value in it for them.”
She’s quick to point out that just because you put an economic value on something, it doesn’t diminish its intrinsic value. On the Red List, the humble musselcracker gets the same billing as a crocodile.