Study shows more than half of all non-flying mammals are vulnerable to extinction

In 2010, 196 world nations (including the US) came together in Aichi, Japan to thwart the looming extinction crisis on the planet. A 10-year plan to protect and preserve nature, divided into twenty individual goals, was laid down by the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Fast forward to 2020: the world has missed a single goal of the treaty but one: to protect at least 17 percent of all terrestrial and inland water ecosystems.

Reaching this milestone has heartened eyes on a new prize — protecting 30 percent of the world’s land and seas by 2030. But even those efforts may not be enough to protect thousands of animals, according to a study published Monday in the journal to save from extinction PNAS. Scientists in the US, UK and Italy found that protected areas around the world — such as national parks, wilderness areas and nature reserves, which are the mainstays of biodiversity conservation — are too small and insufficiently connected to ensure long-term survival many species.

As a result, researchers estimate that between 44 and 65 percent of all non-flying mammals are vulnerable and potentially threatened in some way.

The new paper examined whether current protected areas are resilient enough to support animal life for the next 100 years. Using computer models, the researchers estimated the potential population size of a single species within a given protected area and how large that community would need to grow to survive. Among 3,800 land-based mammals analyzed – accounting for about 70 percent of all mammals – between 1,700 and 2,500 species were found to be underprotected by their protected areas. These animals have been found mainly in the most biodiverse regions of the world such as Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa.

“[These regions] all had both more underprotected mammal species and a higher proportion of their total underprotected mammal species than other regions, with the exception of Oceania, which also had high levels of underprotection,” the authors write in their article.

Researchers also found that a large number of mammals currently classified as threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) are severely understocked by current protected areas. These included not only notable large animals like the African elephant and rhino (both poached for their ivory), but also smaller ones like the African wild dog – which is threatened by habitat loss and poaching – and the Sri Lankan shrew, which is also threatened by habitat loss.

The Sri Lankan shrew – the world’s smallest mammal by weight.

Trebol-a / Wikimedia Commons

Over 1,000 animals of all sizes not classified as threatened by the IUCN may also be underprotected. These include the American bison, howler monkeys, the volcano shrew native to Central Africa, and the short-faced mole native to China.

“Many of these smaller species, in particular, are poorly studied, lack detailed population data, and are unlikely to be the focus of current conservation efforts,” the authors wrote, explaining that when these animals disappear due to factors such as habitat loss begin to do so, it may be too late to protect them once we decide to finally take notice.

We might think that an obvious solution to the problem is to add more land to a protected area, prevent deforestation, and slow down human development. That would certainly help, but the researchers say the economic compromise could be a hard sell for low- and middle-income countries that don’t receive international aid.

Rather than just focusing on including more land, the researchers suggest that conservation efforts should include strategic programs that identify the best locations for protected areas. These areas should be well managed and connected to allow animals to roam and be less vulnerable to natural disasters, disease outbreaks and most importantly climate change, a known threat to the planet’s biodiversity.

These efforts could be enough to halt the extinction of many species over the next century. But the clock is ticking. Study shows more than half of all non-flying mammals are vulnerable to extinction


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