A United Nations report published in May 2019 warns that a staggering one million endangered species of plants and animals are at risk of going extinct. The landmark global assessment, compiled by more than 145 scientists in 50 countries, highlights the losses biodiversity has suffered in the last half century and which species will become extinct – many within decades – if human pressures such as deforestation, overfishing, and pollution of the planet’s air and water are not curbed.
Collectively, our planet’s living species provide us with food, air, clean water and more. When nature suffers, people suffer. At a time when species are being lost tens or even hundreds of times faster than ever before, the report provides a clarion call for reversing the trend of biodiversity decline.
According to the report, the drivers of this rapid deterioration in ecosystem health are changes in land and sea use, direct exploitation of animals and plants, climate change, pollution, and invasive alien species, in that order. The report stresses the urgent need for transformative change to protect the planet and its endangered species and sets out possible pathways for building a global sustainable economy.
25% of mammals are at risk of extinction
Shockingly, the IUCN estimates that nearly half of the world’s primates – our closest evolutionary cousins – are at risk of disappearing. The majority live in tropical forests that are being rapidly lost to deforestation. Mammals such as the pangolin are being pushed to extinction by illegal hunting for scales and meat, while marine mammals are under threat from pollution and overexploitation of our seas.
14% of bird species are projected to go extinct at current rates of decline.
Parrots are one of the most endandered bird groups, with 56% of species in decline. They face a wide range of threats, from habitat loss, agricultural expansion and the pet trade (parrots are among the most commonly trapped birds).
Meanwhile, seabird numbers have dropped 70% in the last 50 years. Each year, fisheries are responsible for the incidental deaths of hundreds of thousands of seabirds, including many albatross species. Research published in 2015 found that plastic trash is found in 90% of seabirds.
Over 50% of vulture species are at risk, primarily due to poisoning from rodenticides, insecticides and drugs or toxins that are used to treat livestock or deliberately kill predators or the vultures themselves.
No group of animals has a higher rate of endangerment than amphibians. A staggering 40% of amphibians are currently threatened.
Research published in March 2019 revealed that chytrid fungus has already caused the extinction of 90 amphibian species and has contributed to the decline of more than 500 frogs, toads and salamanders. Habitat loss, exploitation and climate change are also major threats for this group.
Globally, 21% of the total evaluated reptiles in the world are classified as endangered or vulnerable to extinction.
Turtles and tortoises are among the world’s most threatened groups of species, with more than 60% at risk of extinction due to habitat loss, the illegal pet trade, marine pollution and by-catch, as well as hunting for food and traditional medicine.
Island reptiles – such as the marine iguana endemic to the Galapagos islands – are another particularly vulnerable group, while the critically endangered gharial has declined 98% since the 1940s as a result of habitat alteration, fishing pressure and hunting.
5% of the world’s known fish species are at risk of extinction. Habitat loss and pollution are significant factors in species decline, but the greatest threat by far is overfishing.
An estimated 100 million sharks are killed every year around the world, a number that far exceeds what many populations need to recover. This alarming statistic is the result of the demand for shark fin soup, a delicacy in parts of Asia. As a result, 31% of shark and ray species are now being pushed to the edge of survival.
Many people don’t realise that some of the fish species we eat are also endangered, including tuna, Atlantic cod, giant sea bass, haddock and Atlantic halibut.
Invertebrates are estimated to account for around 97% of all species on earth, yet they are not as well-studied as other animal groups. Of the 1.3 million known invertebrate species, fewer than 10,000 have been assessed – and of these, about 30 percent are at risk of extinction.
To see more images of wildlife at risk, explore our endangered animals gallery which illustrates hundreds of species across all the major animal groups.