By Barbara Kessler

Polar bears, penguins, pandas have become symbols of the fight to save wild places around the world and push back global warming.

According to conservationists meeting in Barcelona this week, they have a host of company. A broad assessment of the world’s mammals reveals an “extinction crisis” with nearly one-quarter of known mammal species at risk of disappearing forever due to habitat loss, pollution, global warming, over-hunting and food chain erosion.

The study, unveiled at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress, shows that 1,141 (and possibly nearly 2,000) of the world’s 5,487 mammals are known to be threatened with extinction.

Natural processes – or natural selection as Darwin termed it – accounts for some loss of species over time, and since the year 1500 at least 76 mammals have known to become extinct.

But the number of threatened species being pushed toward extinction today is skyrocketing due to human pressure on the planet’s resources, according to the IUCN, a network of scientists, conservationists, governments and policy organizations.

“Within our lifetime hundreds of species could be lost as a result of our own actions, a frightening sign of what is happening to the ecosystems where they live,” says Julia Marton-Lefèvre, IUCN Director General, in a statement.

Recovery efforts and better data collection must begin in earnest to turn the tide, she said.

The report cited examples of several species that have been nurtured back from near extinction, such as the Wild Horse, which was listed as Extinct in the Wild in 1996 but brought back to Critically Endangered status since been reintroduced into the wild in Mongolia.

Overall, the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species identifies 44,838 total species worldwide in danger right now. (See a video of selected threatened species at this link.)

Of those, 16,928 – or about 38 percent are threatened with extinction. Of that number:

  • 3,246 are Critically Endangered, the highest category of threat, which includes species that are “in all probability” already extinct but further evidence is needed
  • 4,770 are listed as Endangered
  • 8,912 are listed as Vulnerable

The IUCN has posted a photo galllery with case studies of affected animals to help people see some of the species being affected, such as the African Elephant, the Iberian Lynx and the Caspian Seal.

The project to assess the world’s mammals was conducted with help from 1,800 scientists from more than 130 countries. Collaborating institutions included Conservation International in Washington D.C., and unversities such as Sapienza Università di Roma, Arizona State University, Texas A&M University, University of Virginia, and the Zoological Society of London.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature brings together governments, Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) and companies to develop policies and best practices in the arena of conservation. The global network, based in Switzerland, includes more than 11,000 volunteer scientists and experts in more than 150 countries.

Some 7,000 experts work on the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission.

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