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The threat of extinction is getting worse for migratory animals



More than one in five migratory species officially deemed in need of international protection are now in danger of extinction. That’s according to the most comprehensive report of their populations yet, released as a United Nations wildlife conservation conference kicks off this week in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

Human activity is pushing these species to the brink. But that also means there are concrete steps people can take to safeguard their futures. The first-of-its-kind stocktake of the world’s migratory species isn’t all doom and gloom — there are some success stories sprinkled in there. It just goes to show that it’s not too late to act; it just has to be fast because the clock is ticking for many of the billions of animals that migrate each year.

Migrating animals help other species, including people, along their journeys

Migrating animals help other species, including people, along their journeys. They might play a role in pollinating plants, spreading seeds, or getting rid of pests, for instance. Others even help us fight climate change by sequestering planet-heating carbon.

For many of those reasons — and because they’re so cool, just look at the photos below — 1,189 species have been officially recognized as needing international protection under the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS). Of those species, 44 percent are seeing their populations decline, according to the new report by the conservation scientists at the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre. Around 22 percent are at risk of extinction, with fish faring far worse than others.

Silky shark.
Photo by: Luca Picciau / REDA&CO / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

A whopping 97 percent of fish species on the CMS list are threatened with extinction. That includes the silky shark that roams a warm band of tropical waters around the globe. It’s one of the most-caught species of shark in the world — either finding itself tangled in fishing lines or hunted for its meat and fins.

Since 1988, 70 CMS-listed species have moved to a category closer to extinction on the notorious “Red List” of threatened species maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).

One such unlucky creature is the Egyptian vulture, which the IUCN has declared “endangered.” Ironically, the birds have historically been an omen of good health and a symbol of spring — their breeding season — around the Mediterranean. They’re losing ground fast to urban development and agriculture across Europe, Africa, and Asia.

Since 1999, their numbers have been shrinking 35 percent each year in India alone. Drugs given to livestock and ultimately eaten by the scavengers could be responsible for their deaths.

A migratory Egyptian vulture hovers over Pirana landfill on the outskirts of Ahmedabad on February 20th, 2023.
Photo by SAM PANTHAKY / AFP via Getty Images

The two biggest threats to all migratory species are habitat loss and overexploitation. City sprawl, farmland, and even fences and walls along borders can cut through these animals’ homes or obstruct journeys they need to take to breed, find food, or shelter from the cold. “Overexploitation” is a polite way of saying people take too much when hunting or fishing or inadvertently trap or kill animals that they might not even be after in the first place (like those tangled-up sharks).

Pollution, including chemical, plastic, noise, and light pollution, can cause harm and mess up migration routes. Take the mighty green turtle, who can travel hundreds of miles (up to thousands of kilometers) to lay its eggs on the same sandy beach where it hatched. Young hatchlings find their way back to the sea with help from moon and starlight reflecting off the water. Artificial lights from roads and streetlights nearby can instead lure them to their deaths.

Climate change throws more obstacles at the sea turtles and other migratory species. They’re losing beaches to sea level rise and erosion, and the sea walls people put up to try to protect themselves from those threats can cut turtles off from their breeding areas.

Hotter temperatures are even affecting the ratio of females to males among green sea turtles, since the temperature of the sand influences the sex of a hatchling. The warmer the sand, the more likely it is that a hatchling will be female, and so there are more females lately. Females made up 99 percent of young green turtles in a 2018 study of one population born along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

A green sea turtle rests on the hull of the Star Gerren, a sunken ship, off the coast of Noord in Aruba on November 15th, 2023.
Photo by JOSEPH PREZIOSO / AFP via Getty Images

Solutions to these problems aren’t out of reach. Dimmable and motion sensor-activated streetlights and warmer LED lights can limit the effects of light pollution on wildlife. Clean energy gets rid of the pollution causing climate change.

The report also says there needs to be more work to identify which migratory species are threatened and which places need to be protected to safeguard them. It lists 399 additional species that “are threatened or near threatened with extinction” but still aren’t on the CMS list of species needing international protections. It also highlights 10,000 “key biodiversity areas” that migratory species rely on — more than half of which lack protective designations for conservation.

Conservation efforts brought the Saiga antelope back from near extinction, the report points out. This prehistoric species survived the ice age, outliving the wooly mammoth. Even so, its numbers dwindled down to less than 50,000 individuals in Kazakhstan in 2006 after poaching and disease decimated their herds. Efforts to restore steppe and wetland habitats in Kazakhstan and work with local communities to stop poaching allowed their population to recover to 1.3 million in Kazakhstan in 2022. The Saiga is no longer considered critically endangered, a rare but hopeful win.

A newborn Saiga calf stands in a field after sunrise in the steppe on the border of Akmola and Kostanay regions of Kazakhstan on May 14th, 2022.
Photo by ABDUAZIZ MADYAROV / AFP via Getty Images

The humpback whale has made another remarkable comeback. Their blubber — in the form of whale oil — lit lamps and candles during the heyday of whaling in the 1700s and 1800s. Since protections were put in place, and as people found other sources of fuel, their numbers have grown back to 93 percent of what their population was pre-whaling in the western South Atlantic. It’s now considered a “species of least concern” by the IUCN.

In their recovery, whales even help to slow global warming. Humpbacks, together with 11 other species of whales, collectively store 2 million metric tons of carbon in their enormous bodies, a 2022 study estimated. Even so, while that might be equivalent to preventing the annual emissions from five gas power plants, people could prevent far more pollution and environmental damage by switching to clean energy. Tackling climate change was another one of the key recommendations the report makes.

A mother humpback whale and calf are seen next to a boat used by scientists from Jubarte Lab to monitor them on the coast of Vitoria, Espirito Santo state, Brazil on August 22nd, 2023.
Photo by CARL DE SOUZA / AFP via Getty Images

“Given the precarious situation of many of these animals, we cannot afford to delay, and must work together to make the recommendations a reality,” Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, said in a press release.

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