Bison Recovering, But 31 Other Species Now Extinct

It's a mix of good and bad in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species update.

European Bison
The European bison moved from vulnerable to near threatened.

© Rafał Kowalczyk / IUCN

Europe's largest land mammal, the European bison, is benefiting from conservation efforts, according to today's update of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. The bison has moved from vulnerable to near threatened status.

With this new update, 31 species move into the extinct category including a dolphin and three frog species. Now, all the world's freshwater dolphin species are threatened with extinction.

“The European bison and 25 other species recoveries documented in today’s IUCN Red List update demonstrate the power of conservation,” Dr. Bruno Oberle, IUCN Director General, said in a statement.

“Yet the growing list of Extinct species is a stark reminder that conservation efforts must urgently expand. To tackle global threats such as unsustainable fisheries, land clearing for agriculture, and invasive species, conservation needs to happen around the world and be incorporated into all sectors of the economy.”

By the early 20th century, European bison (Bison bonasus) were only alive in captivity – but were reintroduced in the wild in the 1950s. The wild population has grown from around 1,800 in 2003 to more than 6,200 in 2019. The most bison are found today in Poland, Belarus, and Russia with 47 free-ranging European bison herds.

Because the herds are mostly isolated from each other with limited genetic diversity, the species depends on conservation measures to continue its recovery.

“Historically, European bison were reintroduced mostly to forest habitats, where they don’t find enough food in winter," said Dr. Rafał Kowalczyk, co-author of the new assessment and member of the IUCN SSC Bison Specialist Group.

"However, when they move out of the forest into agricultural areas, they often find themselves in conflict with people. To reduce the conflict risk and the bison’s dependence on supplementary feeding, it will be important to create protected areas that include open meadows for them to graze."

Changes in Marine Life

The tucuxi is now endangered. © Fernando Trujillo / IUCN

The IUCN Red List is the most respected global source that assesses the conservation status of animal and plant species. It provides information about population size, threats, range, and habit. There are currently 128,918 species on the Red List, of which 35,765 are threatened with extinction.

The new update showed key changes for marine life.

The tucuxi (Sotalia fluviatilis), a small, gray dolphin found in the Amazon, has moved to endangered, after being affected by fishing gear, pollution, and the damming of rivers. With this classification, all of the world's freshwater dolphin species are now listed as threatened on the IUCN Red List.

The IUCN suggests that eliminating the use of curtains of fishing nets that hang in the water and reducing the number of dams in the dolphins' habitat are priorities to help the species recover. It's also critical to enforce the ban on the deliberate killing of tucuxi.

Only described last year, the lost shark (Carcharhinus obsoletus), debuts on the Red List as critically endangered (possibly extinct). Because the shark was last recorded in 1934 and its habitat in the South China Sea is one of the most overexploited marine regions globally, it's unlikely that the species could have survived. The lost shark may already be extinct.

The World Wildlife Fund points out that the IUCN assessment now shows 316 chondrichthyan species – sharks, rays and skates, and chimaeras – are now threatened with extinction. They include four hammerhead shark species and four species of angel shark that are endangered or critically endangered, and the giant manta ray, which now faces a very high risk of extinction.

“These findings are sadly predictable,” Dr. Andy Cornish, Leader of Sharks: Restoring the Balance, WWF’s global shark and ray conservation programme, said in a statement.

“As IUCN’s Shark Specialist Group continues to pull the curtain back on the state of sharks and rays, the crisis should be triggering alarm bells for anyone who cares about the health of our ocean. Twenty years have passed since the international community recognised the threat of overfishing through the International Plan of Action for Sharks. Yet, obviously, not nearly enough has been done to halt the overfishing that is pushing these animals to the brink of extinction.” 

Fish, Frogs, and Plants

Also notable from the update is news on fish, frogs, and plants.

Of the 17 freshwater fish species endemic to Lake Lanao in the Philippines, 15 are now extinct and two are now critically endangered or possibly extinct due to predatory, introduced species, as well as overharvesting and destructive fishing practices.

Three Central American frog species have been declared extinct and 22 frog species in Central and South America were categorized as critically endangered (possibly extinct).

In the plant realm, almost one-third of oak trees globally are threatened with extinction. Most threatened species are in China and Mexico, but they can also be found in Vietnam, the U.S., and Malaysia. Land clearing for agriculture and logging are primarily to blame in China, Mexico, and Southeast Asia. Climate change, invasive species, and disease threaten oaks in the U.S.

Members of the protea family, which includes three macadamia species, is also in danger. The assessment found that that 45% (637 of 1,464 species) of these flowering plants that grow mainly across the Southern Hemisphere are vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered.