10 Sep 2020

Conservation action has prevented at least 28 extinctions since 1993

A new study shows just how effectively conservation action slows extinction rates, calculating that at least 28 bird and mammal species would have been lost since 1993 without intervention. The message is clear – with enough support, we can halt the extinction crisis.

The Iberian Lynx is still around thanks to the hard work of conservationists © Nathan Ranc
The Iberian Lynx is still around thanks to the hard work of conservationists © Nathan Ranc
By Jessica Law

In a news cycle full of doom and despair, it’s extremely uplifting to see proof that the hard work of conservationists has a tangible impact. Knowing how and when conservation succeeds is the roadmap we so desperately need to guide us through the coming years. This month, a study led by Newcastle University and BirdLife International estimates the number of bird and mammal species that would have disappeared forever without conservation action in recent decades.

The international team calculated that 21-32 bird and 7-16 mammal species’ extinctions have been prevented since 1993, the year the UN Convention on Biodiversity came into force. The wide ranges reflect the uncertainty that comes with gauging what might have happened under different circumstances. Nonetheless, even the minimum – 28 bird and mammal species – is remarkably encouraging news, showing that extinction rates in these groups would have been around 3-4 times greater with no intervention.

The BirdLife partnership is proud to have been involved in conservation efforts for more than half of these bird species: ten through direct involvement in species management, and six through indirect routes such as advocacy and funding. Species benefiting from direct BirdLife action include the Echo Parakeet Psittacula eques (Vulnerable), Northern Bald Ibis Geronticus eremita (Endangered) and Fatu Hiva Monarch Pomarea whitneyi (Critically Endangered).

To arrive at their conclusions, the study team convened a panel of experts to analyse data on population size, trends, threats and actions taken for the planet’s most threatened birds and mammals. The experts then estimated the likelihood that each species would have gone extinct under a hypothetical scenario in which no action was taken. The study highlighted the most frequently successful conservation approaches for these species. Twenty-one bird species benefited from invasive species control, 20 from conservation in zoos and collections, and 19 from site protection. Fourteen mammal species benefited from legislation, and nine from species re-introductions and conservation in zoos and collections.

Reintroduction proved critical for the Puerto Rican Amazon © Tom Mackenzie / USFWS

Professor Phil McGowan of Newcastle University’s School of Natural and Environmental Sciences, one of the leading authors of the study, sees cause for hope. “We usually hear bad stories about the biodiversity crisis, and there is no doubt that we are facing an unprecedented loss in biodiversity through human activity – but the loss of entire species can be stopped if there is sufficient will to do so. This is a call to action.”

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One success story is the Puerto Rican Amazon Amazona vittata (Critically Endangered). Once abundant, this small parrot’s population hit a low of 13 wild birds in 1975. In 2006, conservationists started reintroducing the species to Rio Abajo State Park – a decision that would prove crucial. In 2017, hurricanes wiped out the original population. Without reintroduction to Rio Abajo, the parrot would have gone extinct in the wild.

Even when only captive populations remain, all hope is not lost. The Przewalski’s Horse Equus ferus went extinct in the wild in the 1960s. In the 1990s, reintroduction efforts started, and by 1996, the first foal was born in the wild. Now, 760 Przewalski’s horses roam the steppes of Mongolia. This provides hope for other species currently surviving only in zoos and collections.

Przewalskis horse made if from captivity back into the wild © Association Takh / Sarah R.B.King

However, some species included in the study, such as the Vaquita Phocoena sinus, a Mexican porpoise, have been reduced to tiny populations that are still rapidly declining. Such species require substantially greater resources, action, and political will to recover their populations to secure levels.

The study has come at a good time, as it will provide valuable evidence to back up current global discussions on biodiversity.  Through the Convention on Biological Diversity, the world’s governments adopted the ‘Aichi Biodiversity Targets’ in 2010: an ambitious attempt to stem the loss of nature, including a commitment to prevent extinctions of all known threatened species by 2020. The Convention’s flagship report – the Global Biodiversity Outlook – which is due to be launched later this month, is expected to confirm that none of the targets were fully met. But it’s not all bad news.

“Our results show that despite the overall failure to meet the targets for conserving nature set through the UN a decade ago, significant success in preventing extinctions was achieved,” said Dr Stuart Butchart, Chief Scientist at BirdLife International and instigator of the study. “This should encourage governments to reaffirm their commitment in the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework currently being negotiated. Such a commitment is both achievable and essential to sustain a healthy planet”.


How many bird and mammal extinctions has recent conservation action prevented? is published in Conservation Letters.