In Di Marco’s et al. paper on “A retrospective evaluation of the global decline of carnivores and ungulates”, published in Conservation Biology’s February 2014 issue, Di Marco and his colleagues use the IUCN Red List to determine the change in conservation statuses for carnivores, ungulates and elephants across the world between 1975 – 2008. Scientific papers can be a schlep to get through, I know, but I loved the article so much and found it pointing out important conservation issues today that I felt I should highlight and breakdown the paper for all those interested.
Currently 36% of the world’s carnivores and ungulates are now susceptible to extinction . For every one single carnivore or ungulate that has improved its conservation status, a.k.a. increased its population numbers, habitat and probability to survive, since 1970, another eight have deteriorated .
We hear these facts being spewed out all the time. As a conservationist I might react even less than most people since every other lecture or presentation is on the decline of the natural world. But its not like we have been ignoring conservation efforts since the 1970s. In fact, it’s just the opposite. From the 1970s to today, the percentage of the world that were designated as protected areas increased from less than 2% to 13% . Many regulations have also been implemented over this time to stop wildlife trade and worldwide attention has been focused on such charismatic mega fauna such as the Giant panda, the cheetah, and the Siberian tiger. So why has there been such a decline still? And why is important to specifically look at carnivores and ungulates?
The known cheetah population is approximately 7,500 adult animals (see section Population for details). Additional areas where cheetah status is poorly known are unlikely to raise the total to over 10,000. Given Myers (1975) estimate of 15,000 cheetahs in Africa in the 1970s, a decline of at least 30% is suspected over the past 18 years (3 generations). The decline is primarily due to habitat loss and fragmentation, as well as killing and capture of cheetahs as livestock depredators, primarily, as well as for trade (IUCN Cats Red List Workshop 2007). (www.iucnredlist.org/)
Carnivores and ungulates are extremely important because they contribute to key ecological processes such as seed dispersal, herbivory, and predation as well as cause major top-down effects on the ecosystem (check out this great video on Yellowstone wolves). While this is extremely important to monitor, few studies have looked at the change in conservation status, and none have looked farther than 20 years. Carnivores and ungulates, especially the large-bodied ones, have lifespans which can surpass the timeframe of the study, making it more difficult to determine if its conservation status is declining or rebounding. Their long generation lengths require this extended monitoring. They are also more susceptible to extinction than other mammals, and thus their conservation status is more likely to have changed .
So we get why this is important to observe, but how did Di Marco and his colleagues determine these numbers in the first place, and what were their findings?
Using the IUCN red lists as their criteria, they looked at all carnivores (n=284) and ungulates (Perissodactyla, n = 16, and terrestrial Cetartiodactyla, n = 244) that have been on the red list between 1970 – 2013. They also included the two species of elephant (n=2) with the ungulates, making it a grand total of 498 species. Based on the species’ threat status (as described in the IUCN Red List criteria), which included data on population structure and size, the trends of the species globally, trends in known threats, trends in habitat availability and deforestation rates, and geographic range, they ranked each species based on their status. If the IUCN did not have a status for a species, Di Marco and his colleagues would considered the above factors to make the most educated and accurate guess possible. The rankings are as follows:
0 = Least Concern (LC)
1 = near threatened (NT)
2 = vulnerable (VU)
3 = endangered (EN)
4 = critically endangered (CR)
5 = critically endangered (possibly extinct) (CRPe), extinct (EX), and extinct in the wild (EW)
[screen shot from the actual paper]
The overall results were what I already stated: for every one species improving, there are eight deteriorating. From 1975 to 2008 the global percentage of threatened species increased from 28.5% to 36.3% . What’s more though, is what Di Marco and his colleagues discovered when analyzing the data:
1) The decline in conservation status for ungulates was much more dramatic than carnivores. There were, however, many improvements in the statuses of felid (cats) and pinniped (seals etc.) species.
2) Species which were considered “large-bodied” (over 100 kg) had a steeper decline than those who were considered “small-bodied” (under 10 kg). Why you might ask? Small-bodied species have a greater ability to adapt, and need to less to survive. A Sumatran bull rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) has a territory of about 50 km. If the majority of that land is fragmented he won’t be able to survive off of the land or find suitable mates, not to mention he is more vulnerable to poaching. Small-bodied species. The African wildcat (Felis silvestris), on the other hand, can survive in almost any habitat, live off of rats and mice that can be found in both urban and natural habitats. While they face other issues such as interbreeding with domestic cats, they have a greater chance of survival.
3) Status improvements mainly occurred in South and North America, while degradation in statuses came from Southeast and Central Asia. This largely is due to habitat loss, such as the spike in forest loss in order to build palm oil plantations . Hunting and exploitation/harvest of species in these countries has also been a contributing factor .
4) Many declines in conservation status were directed related to geopolitical events, international regulations, exploitation of natural resources and shifts in cultural values. For example, Soviet Union collapse directly caused a collapse of protected area systems, withdrawal of subsidies, and an abrupt transition to a free- market economy . Species such as the saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) greatly declined from the drastic and immediate changes .
[Now, remember, these are general statements and not necessarily true for all individual species. For example, the jaguar (Panthera onca) is a South American felid which status has deteriorated because of the global demand for its pelts, and not only is a felid but also found in South America. So all these statements can’t be directed related to individual speices…]
The findings in this paper are important for a myriad of reasons. Even though we hear statistics and information like this all the time, we need to start doing something about it. This is current, critical research. You can’t get any fresher and better than a February 2014 Conservation Biology paper… These topics and problems they are addressing are concerns we have to be completely aware of, especially in order to save declining species. Being able to understand the trends of global species decline is key to determining what the future may hold for these species, and what strategies and policies have worked or not worked in order to preserve as much biodiversity as possible. We can’t find a solution for the future if we don’t understand our past. Hopefully this will push us forward to find the answers and, hopefully, make some plans for the future of these species.
Please feel free to check out the entire article here.
 Di Marco, M., L. Boitani, D. Mallon, M. Hoffmann, a. Iacucci, E. Meijaard, P. Visconti, J. Schipper, and C. Rondinini. 2014. “A Retrospective Evaluation of the Global Decline of Carnivores and Ungulates.” Conservation Biology 00 (0) (February 13).
 UNEP-WCMC. 2012. The World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA). Cambridge, United Kingdom.
 Sodhi, N. S., L. P. Koh, B. W. Brook, and P. K. L. Ng. 2004. South- east Asian biodiversity: an impending disaster. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 19:654–660.
 Corlett, R. 2007. The impact of hunting on the mammalian fauna of tropical Asian forests. Biotropica 39:292–303.
 Milner-Gulland, E. J., M. V. Kholodova, A. Bekenov, O. M. Bukreeva, I. A. Grachev, L. Amgalan, and A. A. Lushchekina. 2001. Dramatic declines in saiga antelope populations. Oryx 35:340–345.