How Can Endangered Species Be on Both IUCN’s Red List and the New Green List?

Because conservation is working—and success should be celebrated.

April 27, 2018
Wild female saiga antelope

Victor Tyakht/iStock

In 1964, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) created a list of all the world’s plants that scientists knew to be in danger of going extinct. It’s called the Red List, and more than 50 years later, it has grown to include mammals, insects, amphibians, reptiles, fishes, and mollusks. There is even an initiative to start adding endangered fungi to this massive data set.

The Red List is widely regarded as the largest, and best, catalogue of the threats facing the earth’s biodiversity, but it has a bit of a PR problem. Some of the species, like say, the whooping crane, have been on the list for decades, giving some people the false impression that conservation efforts are failing. But that is hardly the truth. In many cases, the fact that many of these species are still able to be listed (i.e. they still exist) is a conservation victory.

To help get this point across, a team of IUCN scientists are hammering out the details for a new list that would work as a companion to the red one. They call it the Green List, and they hope to launch it as soon as 2020.

While the Red List examines one criterion—a species’ proximity to extinction—the Green List assesses a species’ conservation legacy, its survival’s dependence on those efforts, and the wild populations’ overall recovery potential. In other words, the Green List will serve as an all-in-one analysis of an animal’s past, present, and future.

Take the saiga antelope. No one will argue that these tube-nosed ungulates have had a rough couple of decades in the steppes and deserts of Eurasia. The males are hunted for their horns, a prized ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine, while others are killed for meat. Making matters worse, more than 200,000 saiga keeled over in 2015 during a mass die-off that  scientists later traced back to bacterial blood poisoning. Then in early 2017, a similar plague in Mongolia struck down another 2,500 antelope, which accounted for about a quarter of the country’s total population.

All in all, around 1.25 million of these long, floppy snozzes were galloping between Ukraine and China as recently as the 1970s, but their numbers have nosedived to about 50,000 today. The IUCN’s Red List now categorizes the saiga as critically endangered, a designation perilously close to extinction. Sounds pretty bad, right?

Well, the IUCN Green List would tell a slightly different story. 

“Even though the [saiga] is critically endangered, conservation has made a substantial difference in the past and is likely to make even more of a difference in the future,” says H. Resit Akçakaya, an ecologist at Stony Brook University and lead author of a paper published this month in the journal Conservation Biology.

Over the past two decades, organizations like the Saiga Conservation Alliance (SCA) have worked to alleviate poaching pressure on saiga herds, which can run up to 30 to 40 animals deep. The SCA provides local rangers with tools such as night-vision goggles, cold-weather gear, motorbikes, and jeeps to help catch poachers; it also holds ranger training events on how to identify smuggled horns and prevent them from going to sale. The SCA is also helping local women sell handmade crafts so they can afford more expensive meats like beef or lamb and will be less likely to opt for the cheaper saiga special. (Learn more about the Kuralai Alternative Livelihood Project in Uzbekistan.) And by getting schools to participate in the Saiga Day Celebration, the SCA is getting the next generation excited about their native wildlife.

As part of the Kuralai Alternative Livelihood project in Uzbekistan, local women create traditionally embroidered bags to help save saigas.

Saiga Conservation Alliance/Alexander Esipov

All this is what Akçakaya and his coauthors refer to as a conservation legacy. “Measuring conservation legacy highlights the impact of past conservation and will hopefully prevent organizations from stopping conservation efforts because they mistakenly think the efforts are not working,” he says.

There are constant, concerted efforts to save animals like elephants, tigers, and panda bears—efforts that keep conservation dollars rolling in. But many species, like the saiga, don’t enjoy the same cash flow. Scientists like Akçakaya hope that the IUCN Green List might help change that.

The state of saiga conservation is such that we really can’t afford to do aerial surveys of the animals’ territories every year, says Carlyn Samuel, research coordinator for the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science at the University of Oxford. So it’s tough to say exactly just how many saiga antelopes remain, which in turn makes it difficult to say how many conservationists have been able to save.

“Even though the [saiga antelope’s] Red List status has deteriorated, we cannot say that conservation has not worked,” says Akçakaya. “Giving the public only bad news about biodiversity tends to make people feel hopeless and give up support for conservation. Yes, we are in the midst of a biodiversity crisis. Yes, many species are at the brink of extinction, and others are headed that way. But there are also many conservation successes. When conservation measures are planned well and implemented well, they do work.”

In the end, the idea behind the Green List is about shifting our perceptions from viewing conservation as a zero-sum game. So long as an animal has not gone extinct, there will always be shades of gray—or green, as it were.

This article was made possible by a grant from the Jonathan & Maxine Marshall Fund for Environmental Journalism.

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