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One-sixth of Europe's mammals face extinction

May 22, 2007 By Michael Hopkin This article courtesy of Nature News.

New census highlights threatened status of many species.

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One-sixth of Europe's mammal species are threatened with extinction, according to a comprehensive survey by the World Conservation Union (IUCN). Unless the trend is reversed, conservationists fear that the European Union will not be able to meet its self-imposed target of halting biodiversity loss by 2010.

Of the roughly 250 mammal species that live in Europe and western Russia, some 15% are classed as 'vulnerable' or worse, according to the IUCN's criteria. This means that they face a "high risk of extinction in the wild" if action is not taken.

The report, entitled the European Mammal Assessment and released to mark today's International Biodiversity Day, shows that European countries have their work cut out if they are to fulfil their 2010 biodiversity target, known as the Habitats Directive. "A lot of work has to be done to implement it," says Craig Hilton-Taylor, manager of the IUCN's Red List Unit in Cambridge, UK.

This new assessment proves that many European mammals are declining at an alarming rate.
Julia Marton-Lefèvre, IUCN director-general
Worst affected is the handful of European mammals classed as 'critically endangered', the most serious category. The Iberian lynx, for example, is the world's most endangered big cat — only an estimated 150 are thought to remain. The Arctic fox and European mink face similar plights.

The assessment shows that the situation is even more perilous for Europe's marine mammals, of which 22% are classed as vulnerable or worse. The situation may in fact be even worse than this — almost half of European marine mammal species do not have enough data to determine their conservation status.

But the situation, although bleak, is not as bad in Europe as it is in many other regions, Hilton-Taylor adds. "The situation in the tropics is even worse." In tropical regions, which have greater numbers of species overall, an average of one in four is officially threatened, largely as a result of extensive deforestation.

Ups and downs

The number of threatened species may be set to increase, Hilton-Taylor notes. Currently, some 27% of the mammal species surveyed are thought to be declining, meaning that more may join the ranks of those classed as threatened, whereas only 8% are growing in number. The main drivers of this change are habitat degradation, deforestation, pollution and excessive hunting, the report says.

But there are some success stories. The Alpine ibex, which was hunted almost to extinction during the nineteenth century, has now rebounded to number more than 30,000. And the European bison, which for much of the past century was only found in zoos, now roams in herds across much of eastern Europe.

"This new assessment proves that many European mammals are declining at an alarming rate," says IUCN director-general Julia Marton-Lefèvre. "However, we still have the power to reverse that trend, as the case of the European bison which was brought back from extinction clearly shows."

Conservation efforts in the European Union's newest members, such as Poland and Bulgaria, will be crucial in preventing biodiversity from sliding, Hilton-Taylor argues. These countries are home to many valuable species, although there is currently not enough data to say whether species are declining more rapidly in eastern Europe than they are in western countries. "We need a more structured monitoring system," he adds.


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