Monday, January 28, 2013

Red alert for (Red) listed

Dhanesh Wisumperuma

The Nation, 27-01-2013, Fine, p. 11

Pics by Bushana Kalhara

The leopard (Panthera pardus), sleeping, but is Endangered

Threatened animals and plants are categorized as critically endangered

The National Red List 2012 of Sri Lanka was released about a month ago. In simple terms, a Red List is a compilation of data on the conservation status of the flora and fauna on a defined geographic entity. It lists the threatened species and categorizes them according to the threat they face. A frequently updated online global Red List managed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) with many other organizations is also available. The Sri Lanka’s National list is prepared country level based on the IUCN criteria. The recent list was published by the Biodiversity Secretariat of the Ministry of Environment and the National Herbarium, Department of National Botanic Gardens.

Preparation of country lists for fauna and flora of Sri Lanka is few decades behind. There were two initial issues of Red Lists in 1980s. After a comprehensive assessment, Threatened Fauna and Flora of Sri Lanka was published in 1999. The next update was released in 2007 in the form of Red List of Threatened Fauna and Flora of Sri Lanka. The 2012 list received contributions from many experts of various taxonomic groups of the country. Evaluation methodologies as well as the understanding of the biodiversity of the country has been improved and fine-tuned during this period and the 2012 list is undoubtedly the most updated and comprehensive assessment of the conservation status of fauna and flora of the country. Periodical updating of such lists is crucial to understand the changing state of the species due to a variety of factors, mostly anthropogenic that alter the habitats of living organisms.

For instance, only 807 flowering plants were evaluated in 1999 and the number has increased to 3,154 by 2012. The total number of faunal species assessed was 1,243 in 1999 and the figure has gone up to 2,264 by 2012. The increased or advanced knowledge of our flora and fauna is of interest.


Highlights of the 2012 list

When we examine the findings of the Red List, the emerging truth is alarming. One can realize the state of our flora and fauna by reviewing the figures in the report. These figures are taken from the printed version although it contains some errors. Thye are expected to be corrected soon, but they do not affect the overall message.

The message of the 2012 Red List is obvious – a considerable proportion of our flora and fauna are threatened – about 924 species of the animals (over 41 percent of the total species evaluated) and 1,587 species of the plant species (over 45 percent of evaluated) found in Sri Lanka are threatened at present. These threatened animals and plants are categorized as Critically Endangered, Endangered and Vulnerable, according to threat level.

We have possibly lost some of the fauna and flora so far - 19 amphibians are extinct and one other is considered possibly extinct. Two freshwater fish and one reptile are also considered possibly extinct. Seven plants are among the extinct and extinct in the wild category and 177 are among the possibly extinct category. This is the result of the impact we have caused on our environment with or without being aware of what we have done.

The number and the percentage of threatened species among the taxonomic groups differ. For instance, 107 reptile species found in the country are threatened. The threatened number of amphibians is 72, which is about 78 percent of the amphibians. Meanwhile, the lesser studied taxonomic groups like freshwater crabs and land snails also have a higher proportion of threatened species. Forty six of the 51 freshwater crab species are threatened while the number of land snails in danger stand at 165.

We can find many vital issues in the report when we dig into species level. For instance, during the last decade or so, our knowledge of some of the species seems to be improved. For instance species such as Lagenandra erosa, labeled Data Deficient in 1999 are now in the Critically Endangered category. The well-known ‘Kalu wandura’ or the Purple-faced leaf monkey (Semnopithecus vetulus), which was categorized as a Vulnerable species in 2007 has been graded as Endangered. The state of this species, threatened with highly fragmented habitat mainly in the wet zone is somewhat uncertain.

The Red List provides many facts that are lamentable - according to the Red List, Sri Lanka has lost 19 species of amphibian species. Once the number of extinct Sri Lankan amphibians was 21 and the total extinct amphibians stood at a staggering 34. Two of the extinct Sri Lankan species have been rediscovered recently in the country and this provides testimony for the importance of research – we may have to explore our biodiversity.

However an important aspect seen in the report is a testimony of the lack of proper understanding on some taxonomic groups of fauna. For instance a large number of spiders and ants are in the ‘data deficient’ list. Proper evaluations based on future research may put them and other data deficient species on the threatened list. The 2012 List carried a list of provisional checklists of some groups which are not assessed so far and the addition of those could make a difference to the threatened species category.

Important issues

Two other important conservation issues emerge out of the Red List - the number of endemic species among the threatened species and their geographical distribution.The species endemic to Sri Lanka have no other habitat and their conservation rests almost entirely on the efforts taken within the island. According to the 2012 Red List, a considerably high proportion of endemic species are among the threatened species. About 225 of the 329 threatened vertebrate are endemic to the country. The number of endemics among threatened invertebrates is also higher.

The situation of the endemic flowering plants is also critical. Of a total of 1,385 threatened angiosperms 594 are endemic to the country - 42.8 percent of the total threatened species. If we consider the percentage of endemics threatened it is 66 percent. Meanwhile, 72 of the 177 flowering plants considered as possibly extinct are endemic to the country. Five endemic species are among the seven extinct and extinct in the wild category. Also, 67 percent of the threatened Pteridophytes (33 or 49) are endemics.

It is of importance that the geographical distribution of these threatened species raises some significant issues which require immediate attention. For instance, the lowland wet zone and central highlands are the home of a higher number of threatened species of fauna. It is almost the same for the flowering plants too. The highest number of threatened vertebrates was found in Ratnapura District.

Unfortunately, the wet zone has the highest human population density and other areas are increasingly encroached by plantations and agricultural fields as well as some of the development projects. Many of the natural ecosystems in the wet zone are highly fragmented and a few large undisturbed forests are in the zone. These remnants are also constantly under the threat.

What next?

What will be the next step of the Red List is a question that remains to be asked. For some, the Red List was just a news item. This type of view is typical of Sri Lanka, but the Red List has more to offer than the its news value. The chapter on the application of the Red List provides a view of how it could be used in future to conserve the biodiversity. These applications include conservation efforts, defining research agenda addressing information gaps, defining development policies and awareness creation.

It is of interest that one of the co-publishers - the Ministry of Environment – and the agencies under the purview of the institution are responsible for most of the conservation efforts of biodiversity in the country. Areas with higher biodiversity could be exempt from development activities which could impact seriously on their biodiversity. Unfortunately, this is not happening at the moment. For instance, the wet zone is one such area highly threatened with human activities. In such a situation the public has a responsibility towards conservation.

Although some do not consider this, many of our activities more or less affect the environment. Our practices in land use, our modes of traveling, waste we generate all have an impact on the environment. The cumulative impact could even lead to animals and plants going extinct. The Red List highlights the present state of conservation. It should be the basis to a stronger conservation effort. The target should be to decrease the number of threatened species during the next decade or so through conservation.

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