That’s exactly what we’re talking about below. We also explain why this species extinction is happening in the first place, what exactly the Red List of Threatened Species has to do with it, and what the situation is like in Germany. Finally, you can read why we should preserve biodiversity and how we can do that.
We are currently observing the sixth mass extinction of animal and plant species in world history. What is historically new, however, is that this time it is not caused naturally, for example by a volcanic eruption. No, the current mass extinction is the first man-made one. This means that this time it is 1,000 to 10,000 times more intense than it would be naturally. Instead of taking tens of thousands to tens of millions of years, this extinction could happen within 240 to 540 years.
What exactly is causing the current mass extinction?
Our use of nature is designed for short-term benefits, but in the long term it harms not only biodiversity, but us as well. This is because nature functions with a very fragile balance – many interactions react on and with each other. Species conservation expert Anne Hanschke of the WWF compares nature to a tower of building blocks: If you remove individual building blocks, in this case an animal or plant species, it makes the entire tower unstable. And we don’t just take individual building blocks from nature, we take a lot of them.
This happens, for example, when we destroy natural habitats. Clear-cut forests and growing cities and economic areas rob more and more animals and plants of their homes. Pollution of the environment does similar things. In addition, the overexploitation of our resources is causing the death (extinction) of many species: Poaching, overfishing and, here in Germany, forest clearing bring species to the limits of their capacities.
Habitats are also disappearing around the world due to climate change. While some species can adapt, other species, such as the polar bear, have no alternative home. In addition, the introduction of invasive species is displacing native animals and plants. For example, the Asian ladybug is an invasive – that is, non-native – species in Germany that is altering local ecosystems. A final (natural) reason is that some animal and plant species are simply rare. This may be due to their small or highly specialized habitats, e.g. Galapagos giant tortoises or fossa (ferret cats) living only on Madagascar, or their slow reproduction.
What is the Red List of threatened species?
The Red List of Threatened Species, or Red List for short, summarizes animal and plant species worldwide whose existence is threatened. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) updates the list approximately every two years.
IUCN is an international non-governmental organization (NGO), i.e. an independent body. It consists of 1,400 members from over 170 countries, including (inter)national NGOs and representatives of indigenous peoples. The first Red List was published by IUCN in 1962. Initially, only species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians were represented, but later fish and insects were also included. Finally, in 1998, plant species were included.
The IUCN Red List has several objectives:
First, it is intended to provide an independent basis on which international legislators can build when developing measures for species, nature and environmental protection. In addition, the Red List provides a basis for decision-making, as it shows where priorities need to be set in species conservation. Objectivity is very important here: there are no vested interests behind the Red List, making it a reliable source of information for decision-makers.
For example, the Species Threat Abatement and Recovery (STAR) assessment criterion was recently created based om the Red List. It’s a tool that measures what human activity is having what impact on the extinction of what species anywhere in the world. The STAR score informs us about the type of actions, locations, and urgency with which they must be taken. The Red List is used as a guide to identify the risk to which different species are exposed.
The Red List shows which threats exist for which species, how these vary by country, and how severe they are. In addition, the Red List communicates which developments are to be expected. At the same time, the recommendations and guidelines are not legally binding. Thus, this list is in contrast to the Fauna-Flora-Habitat (FFH) Directive, which legally designates nature reserves. At the same time, the Red List is intended to sensitize society to the protection of nature and species. This can ultimately stimulate a sustainable use of our resources.
How does the Red List work?
To properly classify the risk of extinction, ICUN’s Red List is divided into nine sub-categories. Sorted by increasing risk, the categories are as follows:
- LC (Least Concern) = No threat of extinction, the existence of the species is stable
- NT (Near Threatened) = Somewhat threatened, this species is basically on an early warning list
- VU (Vulnerable) = This species is threatened
- EN (Endangered) = This species is very endangered
- CR (Critically Endangered) = This species is so endangered that it’s under threat of extinction
- EW (Extinct in the Wild) = This species is extinct in the wild, living specimens exist only in captivity
- EX (Extinct) = According to observation and/or analysis this species is extinct
There also also the following categories:
- DD (Data Deficient) = There is not enough data to properly classify the risk of extinction
- NE (Not Evaluated) = This species hasn’t been evaluated yet (mostly happens with newly discovered species)
The categorization of animal and plant species takes into account various different factors. The first (and one of the most important) factor is how many specimens of the species (and possible subspecies) there are. But that is not all.
The following factors are also taken into account:
- How many specimens of the species (and possible subspecies) are able to reproduce?
- How regularly do they reproduce and how long is pregnancy?
- How old to specimens of the species become (both in the wild and in captivity)?
- How does the species spread?
- How large is the species’ habitat?
- How fast is the species disappearing and since when has the phenomenon been observed?
- And which further developments are expected based on the previous observations?
Accordingly, categorization by threat is weighted; it takes into account a complete threat analysis of the animal or plant species.
Red List 2022
It is important to know that the Red Lists are far from complete. This is because we only know an estimated 20% of the species living on this earth. Unbelievable to think of all those species still living in the shadows! For example, experts fear that many more mammal species are threatened than shown in the list. For another 845 mammal species, there is not enough information to classify them.
The Red List published in 2022 has assessed a total of 147,571 animal and plant species. Of these, more than 41,000 species have been classified in a threat category, a new record. According to this, every 5th mammal species, every 8th bird species, every 3rd amphibian species, every 6th shark and ray species and more than 60% of all plant species are threatened.
In this overview you can see the development within a year:
In the 2022 Red List, there were several conspicuous negative trends that are now considered CR (Critically Endangered). These include the monarch butterfly, tigers, African elephant species, the field hamster, and right whales. Other species, such as gorillas, have been threatened with extinction for years.
The Red List in Germany
In addition to the global Red List from the IUCN, there are also national Red Lists for Germany, which are compiled by the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation. Here, a distinction is made between the Red List of Endangered Animals, Plants and Fungi of Germany and the Red List of Breeding Birds of Germany. The latter is published by the National Red List of Birds Committee, which in turn is commissioned by the German Council for the Protection of Birds. Furthermore, there is a separate Red List for each federal state, which is published by the responsible ministries.
These lists also pursue the goal of sensitizing society to species conservation and creating awareness. They also summarize successes and failures of German species protection. The informative aspect is not only important for the development of measures, but also, for example, in spatial planning.
The categorization of Germany’s Red Lists is similar to that of the IUCN:
Most recently, only 25% of Germany’s biotopes could be classified as non-endangered. Of the total 72.2% of endangered biotopes, 48.4% are even considered to be severely endangered! Here you can find the current Red List of the plants of Germany.
The assessment of the animals is no less sad: Of the 40,000 animal and plant species assessed, an unimaginable quarter are considered either threatened or extinct.
Without explicit examples, such numbers can be very abstract. So let’s take a look at Germany’s mammals:
- 33 % of the German mammals are not endangered, for 6 % there is not enough data available.
- 10 % make it onto the warning list of endangered species, including wild rabbits, dwarf mice and chamois.
- 10 % of mammals in Germany are considered extremely rare, e.g. moose, snow hare and ibex.
- 10 % are categorized as endangered, among others the brown hare, the otter and the wolf.
- 10 % are categorized as severely endangered. Protection measures are absolutely necessary for numerous bat species, the Baltic grey seal and the harbor porpoise.
- 7% of Germany’s mammals are threatened with extinction, for example two bat species, the field hamster and the lynx.
- 10% of Germany’s mammals are considered extinct or lost. These include the brown bear, the European mink, the bison and the wild horse.
Here you can find the current Red List of Mammals in Germany.
Why is biodiversity important?
To answer this question, we return to the comparison with the tower of building blocks. Anne Hanschke sums it up like this: “Only if this tower of life remains standing can we humans live healthily and safely.”
Because nature is, as already described, a fragile balanced system. The survival of a species depends on the survival of other species – broken down: If there are no more moose, the wolf loses an important food source. The death of a species can trigger chain reactions, which makes it almost impossible to assess all the consequences.
However, we depend on the balance of ecosystems for a number of things. It guarantees our drinking water and food security. Many medicines depend on balanced ecosystems for their production. Healthy ecosystems do a lot for the environment by absorbing carbon and thereby mitigating climate change, ensuring pollination of plants (did you know that bees and other insects are super important in one third of our food production?), keeping pests in check, providing raw materials, producing oxygen, storing water, …
And those are just the most important effects.
So let’s summarize: Balanced ecosystems with healthy biodiversity are essential for nature, research, the economy and our existence.
Let’s move on to the options we have to stop species extinction and preserve biodiversity.
- Create habitats for animals and plants: For example, more protected areas and sustainable agriculture that relies more on agroforests are needed. As an individual, you can help by creating habitats in the form of leaf piles, hay meadows or wildflower meadows.
- Conserving resources: Above all, this includes saving energy. That way, less energy has to be produced and more ecosystems can remain. In our article on the consequences of climate change, we have summarized easily applicable tips.
- Our waste production should also decrease so that waste doesn’t end up in nature.
- We can change up our diet in order to save resources: Choose regional, seasonal and organic products as often as you can. Recently, a study calculated the “footprint of biodiversity”. According to this, it can be reduced by 25% in Germany with a flexitarian diet, i.e. less meat consumption and if you do eat meat, then high-quality meat. A vegetarian diet reduces the biodiversity footprint by 59% and a vegan diet by as much as 63%. So our next meal could already make a difference in preserving tigers!
- Climate-friendly transport is also good for animal and plant species. The effectiveness of this was demonstrated by the Corona crisis: Thanks to fewer cars, planes and ships, dolphins reappeared in the Bosporus, schools of fish in Venice and birdsong in our rows of houses.
There are also many biodiversity conservation and restoration projects that you can donate to. These include, for example, those of the IUCN and Pro Wildlife. At WWF you can help preserve a species of your choice.
Our projects also do good for species conservation through their holistic approach. For example, with a donation to us you can support orchards or renaturations that protect biodiversity. Our project in the Peruvian rainforest also makes an important contribution to the preservation of biodiversity, because the tropics contain and lose the greatest diversity of animal and plant species worldwide.
So, we learned that there’s currently a rapid extinction of species caused by numerous human activities. The Red List of threatened animal and plant species records this and provides information so that appropriate measures can be taken to protect species. The Red List for Germany draws similarly grim conclusions and also makes it clear that urgent action is needed. This urgency can be explained by the important effects that balanced, biodiverse ecosystems have on our own survival. Therefore, this article concludes with some inspirations that we can all use to become active for species conservation.