Pic: Markus Lilje ©

At least 28 extinctions prevented globally by conservation action in recent decades and South Africa has had no mammal or bird extinctions in this same period.

Conservation action has prevented the global extinction of at least 28 bird and mammal species since 1993, a study led by Newcastle University and BirdLife International has shown. The species include Puerto Rican Amazon Amazona vittata, Przewalski’s Horse Equus ferus, Alagoas Antwren Myrmotherula snowi, Iberian Lynx Lynx pardinus, and Black Stilt Himantopus novaezelandiae, among others.

Publishing their findings in the journal Conservation Letters, an international team of scientists (including SANBI staff member Matthew Child) have estimated the number of bird and mammal species that would have disappeared forever without the efforts of conservationists in recent decades. The researchers found that 21-32 bird and 7-16 mammal species extinctions have been prevented globally since 1993, with the ranges reflecting the uncertainty inherent in estimating what might have happened under hypothetical circumstances.

Led by Dr Rike Bolam and Professor Phil McGowan (from Newcastle University’s School of Natural and Environmental Sciences), and Dr Stuart Butchart (Chief Scientist at BirdLife International), the team compiled information on the most threatened birds and mammals from 137 experts to estimate the likelihood that each species would have gone extinct without action. Their findings show that without conservation actions, extinction rates would have been around 3-4 times greater.

The global study has highlighted the most frequent actions to prevent extinctions in bird and mammal species. Twenty-one bird species benefited from invasive species control, 20 from reintroduction programmes in collaboration with zoos and living collections, and 19 from site protection. Fourteen mammal species benefited from legislation, and nine from species re-introductions and zoo breeding programmes.

Dr Rike Bolam from Newcastle University, lead author of the study, said: “It is encouraging that some of the species we studied have recovered very well. Our analyses therefore provide a strikingly positive message that conservation has substantially reduced extinction rates for birds and mammals. While extinctions have also occurred over the same time period, our work shows that it is possible to prevent extinctions.”

South Africa’s success in extinction prevention

SANBI’s Threatened Species Programme conducts national red listing projects that fed directly into the global assessment process, and tell us how South Africa is faring in efforts to prevent species extinction. South Africa has not had any bird or mammal species go extinct in recent decades.

We can boast genuine success stories for South African species that often result from co-operation between the public and private sectors. For example, both the Cape Mountain Zebra (Equus zebra zebra) and Lion (Panthera leo) are no longer listed as threatened due to strong population growth on both protected areas and private conservation areas.

For the Cape Mountain Zebra, the population has been increasing steadily from 1985 to 2014, despite being reduced to fewer than 80 individuals in the 1950s. Similarly, the Lion has been stable or increasing over the past 20–30 years. In Kruger National Park, the population has increased over the past decade, and the population within smaller protected areas and private conservation areas has increased from 10 to c. 500.

Cheetahs (Acinonynx jubatus), which were extirpated from over 90% of their former distribution range in South Africa, are slowly starting to increase in numbers through careful metapopulation management. Honey Badgers (Mellivora capensis) have improved in status as a result of reduced persecution linked to farmers being incentivised via ‘badger friendly’ honey labelling programmes to rather protect hives from damage than to persecute badgers.

Due to a suite of regulations that are in place to protect species in South Africa, we fortunately have few mammals and birds on the brink of extinction now. Furthermore, our conservation actions are actually improving the Red List status of some species.

Current South Africa species facts

So far South Africa has assessed the risk of extinction of 23 331 species and 48 of these species are extinct. Plants have the highest number of extinctions at 36 species, followed by mammals at 5 extinctions. Many of these extinctions happened historically and now conservation interventions are focused to prevent extinctions.

The National Biodiversity Assessment, published by SANBI in 2019, indicated that 14% of South Africa’s plant species and 12% of animal species assessed are threatened with extinction. Species confined to freshwater ecosystems are declining more rapidly than those occurring in terrestrial ecosystems. Our freshwater fishes are the most threatened group with one in every three species threatened. Fortunately, no freshwater fish species has gone extinct in the past decade – also as a result of very active management and interventions by conservation agencies to prevent extinctions.

South Africa has high levels of species endemism, species found only in our country and nowhere else. For example, 67% of plants, 52% of butterflies, 50% of amphibians, 49% of freshwater fish, 48% of reptiles and 36% marine fish are found only in our country. The responsibility to protect these species remains very high and is an ongoing focus for both government and civil society.

Ms Domitilla Raimondo
Lead: Threatened Species Programme
E-mail: D.Raimondo@sanbi.org.za

Mr Matthew Child
Project Coordinator: Biodiversity Informatics
E-mail: m.child@sanbi.org.za

Photo credit: Markus Lilje

Reference for the global extinction study

Bolam, F.C, Mair, L., Angelico, M., Brooks, T.M, Burgman, M., McGowan, P. J. K & Hermes, C. et al. (2020). How many bird and mammal extinctions has recent conservation action prevented? Conservation Letters, e12762. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12762

Images from the global study

Species names and photographers are in the file names: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1S3QPGkdgZDfH_2J9MeyLSnqJyDU_J7bX?usp=sharing

About the National Biodiversity Assessment

The National Biodiversity Assessment (NBA) is a summary of the state of South Africa’s biodiversity, the full suite of NBA products, is accessible at http://nba.sanbi.org.za/

NBA reference:

South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). 2019. National Biodiversity Assessment 2018: The status of South Africa’s ecosystems and biodiversity. Synthesis Report. South African National Biodiversity Institute, an entity of the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, Pretoria. pp. 1–214. http://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12143/6362

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