The threat of extinction is getting worse for migratory animals

More than one in five migratory species officially in need of international protection are now threatened with extinction. That’s according to the most comprehensive report on their populations to date, released this week as a United Nations conservation conference kicked off in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

Human activity is pushing these species to the brink. But that also means that there are concrete steps that people can take to secure their future. The first-of-its-kind inventory of the world’s migratory species isn’t all doom and gloom; there are also some success stories. It just goes to show that it’s not too late to take action; it just has to happen quickly, because the clock is ticking for many of the billions of animals that migrate every year.

Migrating animals help other species, including humans, on their journeys

Migrating animals help other species, including humans, on their journeys. For example, they can play a role in pollinating plants, dispersing seeds or removing pests. Others are even helping us fight climate change by capturing planet-warming carbon.

For many of these reasons – and because they’re so cool, just look at the photos below – 1,189 species have been officially recognized as in need of international protection under the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS). Of these species, 44 percent are seeing their populations decline, according to the new report from conservation scientists at the UN Environment Program’s World Conservation Monitoring Center. About 22 percent are threatened with extinction, with fish faring much worse than others.

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As many as 97 percent of fish species on the CMS list are threatened with extinction. That includes the silky shark that roams a warm stretch of tropical waters around the world. It is one of the most commonly caught shark species in the world; it becomes entangled in fishing lines or is hunted for its meat and fins.

Since 1988, 70 CMS-listed species have been moved to a category closer to extinction on the infamous “Red List” of threatened species managed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN ).

One of those unfortunate creatures is the Egyptian vulture, which is listed as ‘endangered’ by the IUCN. Ironically, the birds have traditionally been an omen of good health and a symbol of spring – their breeding season – around the Mediterranean. They are rapidly losing ground to urban development and agriculture in Europe, Africa and Asia.

Since 1999, their numbers have declined by 35 percent every year in India alone. Medicines given to livestock and ultimately eaten by the scavengers may be responsible for their deaths.

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The two biggest threats to all migratory species are habitat loss and overexploitation. Urban sprawl, farmland, and even fences and walls along borders can breach these animals’ homes or hinder the journeys they need to make to breed, find food, or shelter from the cold. “Overexploitation” is a polite way of saying that people take too much when hunting or fishing, or that they accidentally catch or kill animals they might not even be after (like those confused sharks).

Pollution, including chemical, plastic, noise and light pollution, can cause damage and disrupt migration routes. Take the mighty green turtle, which can travel hundreds of miles (or thousands of miles) to lay its eggs on the same sandy beach where it hatched. Young hatchlings find their way back to the sea with the help of moon and starlight reflecting off the water. Artificial light from roads and nearby street lights can lure them to their deaths instead.

Climate change is creating more obstacles for sea turtles and other migratory species. They are losing beaches to sea level rise and erosion, and the seawalls that people build to protect themselves from those threats can cut off turtles from their breeding grounds.

The higher temperatures even affect the female-to-male ratio among green sea turtles, because the temperature of the sand affects the sex of a hatchling. The warmer the sand, the more likely a young one will be female, which is why there have been more females lately. Females made up 99 percent of young green turtles in a 2018 study of one population born along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

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Solutions to these problems are not out of reach. Dimmable and motion sensor-activated street lighting and warmer LED lighting can limit the effects of light pollution on wildlife. Clean energy removes the pollution that causes climate change.

The report also says more work needs to be done to identify which migratory species are threatened and which places need to be protected to protect them. It lists another 399 species that are “in danger of extinction or near extinction” but still not on the CMS list of species in need of international protection. It also highlights 10,000 ‘important biodiversity areas’ on which migratory species depend – more than half of which do not have a protective conservation designation.

Conservation efforts have pushed the Saiga antelope to near-extinction, the report said. This prehistoric species survived the Ice Age and outlived the woolly mammoth. Yet numbers in Kazakhstan dropped to fewer than 50,000 in 2006 after poaching and disease decimated their herds. Efforts to restore steppe and wetland habitats in Kazakhstan and working with local communities to stop poaching have allowed their population to recover to 1.3 million in Kazakhstan by 2022. The Saiga is no longer considered critically endangered, a rare but hopeful victory.

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The humpback whale has made another remarkable comeback. Their blubber – in the form of whale oil – lit lamps and candles during the heyday of whaling in the 18th and 19th centuries. Since conservation measures have been put in place and as humans have found other sources of fuel, their numbers have grown back to 93 percent of what their pre-whaling population was in the western South Atlantic. It is now considered a “species of least concern” by the IUCN.

During their recovery, whales even help slow global warming. Humpback whales, along with 11 other species of whales, collectively store 2 million tons of carbon in their enormous bodies, a 2022 study estimates. While that may be equivalent to preventing annual emissions from five gas-fired power stations, humans would be causing far more pollution and environmental damage can be prevented by switching to clean energy. Tackling climate change was another of the report’s key recommendations.

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“Given the precarious situation of many of these animals, we cannot afford to delay and must work together to make the recommendations a reality,” Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, said in a press release.

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