31 May 2019

Why is it controversial to declare a species less threatened?

Last year, we moved the Pink Pigeon from Endangered to Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, its recovery the result of decades of conservation work. When we move a species to a lower threat category, it sounds like a cause for celebration - but why doesn’t everyone agree?

Pink Pigeon © Stellar Photography / Shutterstock
Pink Pigeon © Stellar Photography / Shutterstock
By James Lowen

The Pink Pigeon Nesoenas mayeri could easily have gone the way of its infamous fellow Mauritius endemic, the Dodo Raphus cucullatus. Extinction loomed in the 1990s, when under ten wild pigeons remained. But thanks to diligent conservationists, 400 now fly freely. Encouragingly, the population has been stable for a decade. In 2018, BirdLife responded by declaring the Pink Pigeon to be at lower risk of extinction. It descended one notch on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, from Endangered to Vulnerable. Without exception, the conservation community cheered.

Yet in 2016, when the IUCN downlisted Snow Leopard Panthera uncia and Giant Panda Ailuropoda melanoleuca from Endangered to Vulnerable, it provoked a furore. Opponents castigated the decisions, warning that the category changes would imperil the species. So what’s the problem – and why is BirdLife adamant that ‘downlisting’ never means demotion?

The Red List is the global framework for documenting a species’ status and assessing its risk of extinction. Backed up by data, scientists usher species between categories as they meet certain criteria. Reallocation to a higher threat category is called ‘uplisting’; the converse is ‘downlisting’. Reams of new data are published each year about the population, distribution, threats and conservation of thousands of species. On IUCN’s behalf, and by applying its detailed guidelines, BirdLife’s Red List Team analyses this information to ensure the world’s 11,000 bird species remain correctly categorised.

Dr Ian Burfield, BirdLife’s Global Science Coordinator, recounts the scale of the enterprise: “For the 2018 Red List we updated information for 2,300 bird species – 21% of the world total – and changed the Red List category of 89 – 0.8% of all birds.” Some 58 species were uplisted, and 31 downlisted.

Scientists waited 5 years before re-classifying the Azores Bullfinch © Putneymark

Even such limited changes are not made lightly. Exacting thresholds must be met for amendments to pass. “IUCN’s system contains many checks and balances”, Burfield explains. One is a safety net preventing knee-jerk reactions – a five-year ‘time-out’ to ensure that improved conservation status is genuine and sustained before downlisting a species. “We waited five years before moving the Azores Bullfinch Pyrrhula murina from Critically Endangered to Endangered in 2010, and another six years before re-categorising it as Vulnerable.” This is despite the fact that over 300 hectares of native laurel forest had been restored, helping the population to rebound from just 40 pairs to almost 1,000 individuals.

“BirdLife never has a vested interest in the status of any species,” Burfield says, “nor do we have quotas to meet. To maintain the Red List’s integrity and credibility, we are wholly impartial and evidence-driven.”

Judgement and analysis are applied, but never prejudice or political influence. This makes sense. For the Red List to drive conservation priorities, it must be trusted by decision-makers, whether governments, funders or conservation organisations.

Although proudly independent, BirdLife refuses to operate in an ivory tower. Our approach is inclusive and transparent, using web-based Globally Threatened Bird Forums to test emerging thinking and solicit feedback. Proposals for status changes are made openly, justified by evidence, then expert comment invited. Only after months of consultation does BirdLife either draw conclusions and formally recommend changes to IUCN, or pend decisions if insufficient input is received. 

Things mostly proceed smoothly. Many respondents endorse BirdLife’s recommendations. The 2017 downlisting of two kiwi species – Okarito Kiwi Apteryx rowi and Northern Brown Kiwi Apteryx mantelli – from Endangered to Vulnerable rewarded nearly 30 years of dedication from New Zealand government bodies, conservationists and Māori communities. In 2018, the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (BirdLife Partner) was “thrilled” at Pink Pigeon’s downlisting, as it vindicated endeavours to save the species – and justified the funders’ investment that enabled this.

Such cases are straightforward – and just cause for celebration. Sometimes, however, downlisting encounters resistance. This can be welcome, Burfield says, “Especially when experts alert BirdLife to vital new information that prompts us to revise our initial assessment.”

Some objections originate from an imperfect understanding of often-complex IUCN criteria. In 2017, BirdLife proposed that Northern Bald Ibis Geronticus eremita be downlisted: the species could not legitimately remain Critically Endangered because the main Moroccan population had consistently increased over a 20-year period. Several experts disagreed, countering that BirdLife was not factoring in the near-extinction of the tiny Syrian subpopulation and was overlooking other issues. BirdLife pended the proposal until we had discussed concerns with the Northern Bald Ibis International Working Group of the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA) in late 2017. BirdLife’s explanation and the chance for dialogue did much to satisfy the doubters.

The ibis’s move to Endangered – now largely unopposed – imbued the 2018 Red List update with good news. “It is a momentous endorsement of the Moroccan Government’s success, with BirdLife Partnership support, that the sustained but gradual increase in Morocco means that downlisting is merited”, said Chris Bowden, Working Group Coordinator.

The Northern Bald Ibis has spread to two new breeding sites © C D Faluder

Some objections originate from a different source: a worry that downlisting might mean a species is no longer a conservation priority. When IUCN re-categorised the Giant Panda and Snow Leopard – two of the world’s most iconic and enigmatic mammals – prominent cat conservationists argued that “this is not the right time to downlist” and that doing so “sends the wrong message”. Notable Giant Panda researchers expressed similar sentiments – even publishing objections in a scientific journal.

Such concerns may be driven by worries about getting funding for research or conservation. The more threatened a species, the easier it should be for an organisation to get funding to protect or study it. That seems right and proper. At the extreme, however, it creates a perverse incentive for that organisation to press for keeping the creature as Endangered or Critically Endangered – to avoid losing income.

Writing in the journal Oryx in 2017, Snow Leopard conservationists David Mallon and Rodney Jackson surmised that this may have underpinned criticism of IUCN’s decision. “A transfer to a lower category of threat may be viewed wrongly as a demotion, and something to be resisted, not as a target to be achieved”. Ian Burfield’s observation that “far fewer people object to uplisting than downlisting” speaks volumes.

If concerns over funding are motivating some objectors, their fears fortunately seem groundless. “I can’t think of a single case where crucial conservation funding has ceased as a consequence of downlisting”, says Burfield. Roger Safford, manager of BirdLife’s Preventing Extinctions Programme, adds: “If I were a funder of species conservation work, I would love to be associated with success. Downlisting is a sign of this, but there is always more to do until a species is no longer threatened, as we wish they could all be.”

They may now have been downlisted from Endangered to Vulnerable, but the Pink Pigeon still has a long way to go before it will qualify for further downlisting to Near Threatened, and perhaps one distant day even to Least Concern. Fortunately, nobody in Mauritius is even contemplating ceasing to help them: downlisting is never demotion.

If you are a bird species expert and would like to comment on our proposed changes for the 2019 Red List update, go to the Globally Threatened Bird Forum here.