Vulnerable until proven Least Concern?

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) publishes the global Red List of Threatened Species and provides the standard framework under which species are assessed under a number of categories; extinct, critically endangered, threatened etc. The red list categories are used globally, continentally and regionally and are assessed by expert groups and updated periodically. When you read about species being declared extinct or new reports on threatened biodiversity, many of the times that will be informed by data from the IUCN Red List or reflect a change in a species’ status on the/a list.

The information in the portal is referenced in national data books, museum and aquaria displays and the effort in compiling and reviewing this critical biodiversity data represents countless hours of work by thousands of contributors globally. It’s a model of international collaboration and the resource itself contains a rich amount of referenced information on a species by species basis useful for academic scientists, on the ground biologists and science communicators.

However, progress on updating the Red List across biodiversity is incredibly slow. Both in terms of the proportion of species which have been assessed but also the ongoing process of reviewing and updating information which even, with the best will in the world, will always lag behind the current status of these species in the world. At the time of writing, the headline figures on the portal are that 37,400 species are threatened with extinction, representing 28% of assessed species. Playing around with the numbers in the database, 134425 species have currently been assessed, 18752 are currently rated as Data Deficient (i.e. there isn’t enough information to make an evidenced assessment), 69149 are Least Concern (sort of the neutral position but can include species under declines of pressures regionally but not significant enough to warrant a negative status) and the rest of assessed species fall into categories of growing severity, the lowest being Near Threatened (7889) through to Extinct and Extinct in the Wild (900 and 79 species respectively). Although the numbers of assessed species seem encouragingly high, depending on what you take as an ‘upper limit’ for species diversity, only <1-<10% of species currently have an entry. At this rate, the task of assessing every species will never be complete, let alone the work needed to constantly review and update species’ statuses.

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