50 Years of the IUCN Red List: Inspiring Conservation Action

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, the global program that assesses the extinction threat to the world’s animals, plants and fungi. As the 12th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meets in South Korea this week, CI Executive Vice Chair and primatologist Russ Mittermeier reflects on the list’s history and legacy.

Green-winged macaw in Brazil.

Green-winged macaw in Brazil. This macaw is one of thousands of species that has been assessed by the IUCN Red List; its extinction threat has been evaluated as “Least Concern.” (© Luciano Candisani/iLCP)

My first connection with the IUCN Red List dates back to my high school years in the mid-1960s, when the Red Data Books on mammals and birds first appeared. From the moment I opened these books, I was fascinated with them, in spite of the fact that they lacked any photos or illustrations. I pored over every page time and time again, and dreamed of someday seeing these animals in the wild and helping to save them from extinction.

These early volumes were cumbersome affairs with hole-punched pages in a loose-leaf binder, color-coded by the degree of species endangerment. This being long before the Internet, every six months or so a new packet of loose-leaf sheets would arrive in the mail, providing updated information and requiring laborious replacement of individual pages.

The first publications came out before the explosive growth of tropical field research, before the creation of the discipline of conservation biology — even before the invention of the term “biodiversity.” This meant that much of the information in the Red Data Books came from anecdotal accounts of early explorers, some of them decades or centuries old. Other data came from more recent exploits of big game hunters and amateur naturalists, or from the few initial modern field studies of the 1950s and ‘60s.

In the early 1970s, when I began conducting my own fieldwork in Panama, Costa Rica, Brazil, Peru, Colombia and Tanzania, I started to contribute to the Red Data Books by writing new sheets about previously unassessed species, or updating existing ones.

In particular, I remember sitting down in 1974 at the Tijuca Biological Bank in Rio de Janeiro with my good friend Adelmar F. Coimbra-Filho — the pioneer of Brazilian primatology, now 90 years old — to write new sheets on the lion tamarins of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest region and the monkeys of Amazonia. At the time, Coimbra-Filho was the expert on the lion tamarins, and I had just returned from a four-month expedition looking for uakari and saki monkeys in the Brazilian Amazon.

At that time, the Red Data Book accounts on these Amazonian monkeys consisted of highly anecdotal accounts written by a handful of 19th-century British explorer-naturalists who never actually saw these species in their remote wild habitats, but rather obtained their information from observations of captive animals in towns and from reports by local people.

I became the first non-Brazilian to see the three uakari species and white-nosed saki in the wild, and had considerable new findings to report. (I am delighted to share that my early work on this group of monkeys was recognized this past August when a new species from the Brazilian Amazon, Mittermeier’s saki or Pithecia mittermeieri, was named after me.) However, even though Coimbra-Filho and I were able to substantially update the sheets on these and a number of other species, even our new information was highly anecdotal.

Russ Mittermeier and lemurs in Madagascar

Russ Mittermeier watches lemurs play on a tripod in Madagascar in 1993. Over the years, Russ has made significant contributions to the IUCN Red List, as well as conservation biology in general; he has had numerous species named after him. (© Conservation International)

By the mid-1980s, IUCN recognized the need for rigorous scientific backing for the categories of the Red List (as it became known in 1986) in order to prove that species were threatened enough to merit protection through mechanisms like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

This realization led to a study by world-renowned conservation biologists Georgina Mace and Russ Lande, the results of which were published in 1991 in the journal Conservation Biology. Mace and Lande came up with a new system for Red List categories based on the likelihood of extinction (such as Extinct, Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable, Least Concern, etc.); these were formally adopted by the IUCN Council in 1994.

Over the years, I have been involved in many Red List workshops, publications and action plans derived from this data. In 1978, at the request of Sir Peter Scott, then chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC), I collaborated with colleagues to draft the first “Global Strategy for Primate Conservation,” which drew heavily from the information in the Red Data Books. This led to the creation of a Primate Program at WWF–U.S. and the first Primate Action Fund, which is now based at CI and funded by the Margot Marsh Biodiversity Foundation.

Since then, many colleagues have drawn heavily on Red Data Book and Red List information to create conservation action plans for primates from all regions (and a plethora of other species of animals and plants), bringing us closer to real solutions to protect these fascinating animals.

But conserving species is about more than just plants and animals; it’s also about people. Species provide innumerable benefits for humans. Some pollinate essential food crops; others filter our water or form the basis of live-saving medicines. Many inspire us and enrich our lives, especially when we go and see them in their natural habitats, and still others have benefits that have yet to be discovered.

Today, the IUCN Red List remains the most comprehensive collection of species data worldwide and its information is used in many different ways. As the oldest and most basic set of metrics available to the conservation community, the Red List is an essential reference to determine conservation action that will maintain our planet’s biodiversity while underpinning sustainable development and human well-being everywhere.

The Red List has played an integral role in my career; indeed, I doubt that it would have taken the same course were it not for the inspiration the list provided me many years ago. It truly lives up to its nickname, the “Barometer of Life,” and we need to ensure that it plays an even more visible and powerful role during the next 50 years.

Russell A. Mittermeier is currently the executive vice chair of Conservation International and chairman of the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group, as well as a member of the Red List Committee. He served as CI’s president from 1989 to 2014. CI is a Red List partner and has provided major support to the program.

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