The winning photo of the IUCN Red List for Threatened Ecosystem contest shows Cerro Santa Ana, Paraguana Peninsula, Venezuela. Photo: Delson Ramírez / IUCN

[Guest blogger Melissa Hathaway discusses the IUCN Red List of Threatened Ecosystems, which Desdemona was unaware of. Thanks for the 411, Melissa!]

By Melissa Hathaway
9 June 2013

The focus on environmental conservation is expanding from the need to conserve individual species of flora and fauna to encompass entire ecosystems. is dedicated to comprehensive and global coverage of both natural and manmade disasters, with the issues it highlights clearly demonstrating just how urgent it has become to quantify and work to minimize the damage caused by human activity, climate change, and environmental pollution.

A new global standard for the assessment of environmental risk has been trialed across 20 ecosystems from around the globe, covering 3 oceans and 6 continents. The objective is to construct a tracking system which will allow government, industry and local communities to initiate sustainable environmental management. This change of focus to preservation of ecosystems from individual taxa is in response to the clear global extinction event which has been gathering pace over the past 5 decades; with more than 20,000 species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species currently under threat of extinction.

New Risk Assessment Model

This new risk assessment model is considered ground breaking in the scientific world, allowing consistency of reporting in what had been a somewhat fragmented and piecemeal risk assessment system. Modeled on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the IUCN Red List of Threatened Ecosystems is designed to identify the status of ecosystems using the same categories.

Comparison of Criteria used for the Species Red List and Ecosystems Red List

The categories used in the Red List for Species are:

  • Extinct (EX) when there is no reasonable doubt that the last specimen has died;
  • Extinct in the wild (EW) when the species is known only to survive in cultivation, in captivity or as a naturalized population outside the past range;
  • Endangered (EN)  or Vulnerable (VU) when the species has been assessed against the criteria and is thought to be facing a high to extremely high risk of extinction in the wild;
  • Near Threatened (NT) when a species does not meet the criteria but is close to qualifying or likely to qualify for a threatened status in the near future;
  • Least Concern (LC) when a species does not meet listing criteria under a higher category of threat (for widespread and abundant taxa).

The translation across into the Red List for Ecosystems will follow these guidelines, with 8 categories of risk for each ecosystem (three of which are based on quantitative thresholds) and together are described as threatened:

  • Critically endangered (CR);
  • Endangered (EN); and
  • Vulnerable (VU)

These are complemented by qualitative categories:

  • Near threatened (NT) for ecosystems that fail to meet the quantitative criteria for the threatened categories;
  • Least concern (LC) for ecosystems which clearly meet none of the quantitative criteria;
  • Data deficient (DD) for ecosystems for which too little data is available to assess;
  • Not evaluated (NE) for ecosystems which have not been assessed.

An additional category (CO, collapse) is assigned to ecosystems which have already collapsed, of which the Aral Sea is a prime example. This category correlates to the EX category for species.

Collapse of the Aral Sea Ecosystem

Up until the last quarter of the 20th century, the Aral Sea was the world’s 4th largest saline lake, fed by the Rivers Amu Darya and Syr Darya. During the 1960’s the rivers were diverted for irrigation purposes to the desert region surrounding the sea, to support agriculture. By instigating a program of irrigation, the Aral Sea was deprived of its main sources of water, leading to a drastic reduction in water levels. The loss of water supply from the rivers, coupled with evaporation from the lake surface caused an increase in salinity from around 10g per litre of salt to around ten times that at 100g/l.

The ship cemetery of Muynak, October 2008. Here, old rusting ships lie in the sand where the Aral Sea used to be. Photo: George Kourounis

The end effect has been the almost total dessication of the Aral Sea and the collapse of the ecosystem with the resultant loss of many species. Other consequences of this collapse are the disastrous effects on local populations. With the dessication of the sea have come the complete collapse of the local fishing and shipping industry and the loss of livelihood for much of the population. The desertification of the area has led to dust storms; these have triggered a significant increase in respiratory disorders in local populations, as well as digestive illnesses and a decline in life expectancy. This collapse is a prime indicator of the urgent need to address environmental issues on a global rather than local basis.

Agreement Over Global Standard

The scientific community is in agreement that for the first time there is a standard in place which is applicable on a global scale, covering terrestrial, marine and freshwater systems.

The goal of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Ecosystems is to have classified all the ecosystems of the planet by 2025 and to sustain that database for large geographical regions. There will also be scope for studies at a more local level, by municipality or country, as well as by ecosystem type. Thus far 20 case studies have been carried out, which form the basis of the framework which has been developed.

The IUCN and its partner organizations have combined knowledge and resources to support the attainment of the global biodiversity target of prevention of further species loss. The partnership will act as a guide to nations in developing frameworks to avoid further degradation of ecosystems through poor or absent management, allowing for the stabilization of regions which are at present only under early threat and to address the issues faced by those ecosystems which are already endangered or on the point of collapse.

Jobs Versus Environment

A prime example on the pressures to support industry and commerce, while conserving the environment is found in the South African Veldt. As matters stand at this moment in time, there is still some question whether the need to preserve the grasslands biome will outweigh the enormous pressure to provide employment for South Africans. The timber industry is central to an environmental catch 22. With an unemployment rate of around 62% in rural areas, the industry employs more than 135,000 people and South Africa is desperate for jobs. With the African Development Bank financing a wide range of projects and some people using their Settlement and Land Acquisition Grants to purchase land for forestry, forestry is still very much an expanding industry, both on small, commercial and state levels. Finance is available for those wanting to gain a toehold in the forestry industry and although margins are apparently tight, it is obviously lucrative enough for individuals to get on board, with the opportunity of a ready market with the large state owned SAPPO.

Kwanda grassland, 3 July 2007. Photo: Falcanary /

In a country crying out for the creation of employers, there are a number of financing streams available for start-ups and small businesses which are looking to expand. With the African Development Bank currently holding its annual 4 day meeting in Marrakesh from 27-31 May, we can expect to hear news of further incentives to stimulate local economies once this has taken place. Whilst a framework is currently being put in place for the sustainable management of the region, the grasslands are currently in danger of joining the category of threatened ecosystems.



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