24 July 2014 | Interview by Craig Kasnoff
Jean-Christophe Vié and friend…photo by JC Vié.
Jean-Christophe Vié is Deputy Director of IUCN’s Global Species Programme and Director of SOS – Save Our Species.
Vié joined the IUCN Global Species Programme in 2001 as its Deputy Director. He oversees many diverse aspects of the Programme, including regional and global biodiversity assessments and the Red List of Threatened Species, the assessment of climate change impact on biodiversity.
This is Part 1, of a three-part interview with Jean-Christophe Vié, on Saving Species from Extinction.
CK: How do you see the ‘big’ picture of threatened species (vulnerable – endangered – critically endangered)? Is it getting worse? Is it under control? Out of control? How do you see it?
Jean-Christophe Vié: We have many more threatened species every year, so the situation is certainly not under control. All groups that we have entirely studied and are monitoring are in continuing decline. In fact, many abundant species are declining in large numbers and many are slipping fast towards extinction.
What is worrying is not necessarily that they go extinct, however, because very few actually go to that last and most dramatic stage. But they are moving into the highest category of threats on the Red List of Threatened Species; such as the Critically Endangered category.
CK: Is it more difficult to save a species when the momentum towards extinction starts to pick up?
Jean-Christophe Vié: Not necessarily, it’s more because species are threatened by a combination of threats and many of those keep intensifying. It could be deforestation and hunting for example, like in the case of many primates. So you could stop hunting and that would be good, and there would be a transition to a positive effect or no more decline because of hunting. But even if you stop hunting, but you keep cutting the forest, then the species population will go down again.
And we see this in our research.
We monitor groups of species like birds, amphibians and mammals, and we have been doing this for some years now. In the case of birds they have been monitored by BirdLife for about two decades. In the case of mammals we have been monitoring for about two decades. And in the case of amphibians we have been monitoring over a 30 year period.
And our documentation shows that species have been declining across these groups.
CK: How do the rankings in the Red List’s Threatened Species category work. Does this mean a species is in serious trouble, even if it is only in the Vulnerable species category?
Jean-Christophe Vié: Yes.
Threatened species are a group of three categories; Vulnerable, Endangered and Critically Endangered. And when a species is in a threatened category, it means that it went through quite a serious decline. It’s not just a slow decline.
There are many species that are not in the threatened species category, but are not in a very good conservation shape because they are declining very slowly, say at one percent or their population per year. So with grouses for example, even a one percent decline every year during one century represents quite a significant decline by the end of the century. But it does not qualify as threatened on the Red List because the decline is not big enough.
So to qualify, as a threatened species on the Red List, we have many criteria. And I am going to ‘over- simplify it here as I outline some of those. Usually, if it is a species that reproduces quite quickly, we look at a time-frame of 10 years. And if the global population of this species declines over 30 percent in these 10 years, it qualifies for the Vulnerable category.
If the global population decreases 50 percent, then it qualifies for the Endangered category. And if the species declines 70 percent over the 10 years, then it qualifies as Critically Endangered.
So a 30 percent decline, well that is quite a lot. So yes, these species that are part of the Red List Threatened Species category, you can understand they are in trouble.
But I over-simplify here as the Red List categories are much more complicated than that. There are different scenarios and different parameters you can look at. But all are quantified and the process is rigorous and the categorization documented. It is quite a thorough process and we follow the highest standards to keep the credibility of the Red List.
CK: So when a species is listed as Vulnerable on the Red List, it is considered in a serious situation, even though not as dire as being listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered?
Jean-Christophe Vié: Yes.
Of course it is less serious than Endangered or Critically Endangered or Extinct. But I think even species classified as ‘near ‘threatened are worth looking at as many species not included in threatened categories are declining too. Species listed as threatened on the Red List are just the ‘tip of the iceberg’. But they are the ones of most conservation concern.
CK: Do you know how many species fit into the Red List Threatened category?
Jean-Christophe Vié: Overall 20,200 species are threatened and we just looked at five percent of species diversity. The number keeps increasing. We know precisely for some groups of species that have been fully studied.
For birds, one species in seven is categorized as threatened. For mammals it is one species in four. And for frogs or corals it is one in three.
For mammals and amphibians we are talking about 6,000 species. For birds we are talking about 10,000 species. And in some species groups, the number of species within that group which would be categorized as threatened would be over 50 percent.
And this gives you an idea how serious the situation is.
CK: Can, and should, all species be saved from extinction? If not, which ones ‘must’ be saved?
Jean-Christophe Vié: This is the discussion many people would like to have in the conservation community; it’s what we call triage. People think that some species are useful to people and should be saved; while others not.
That is a debate I refuse to enter into. Because who are we, after spending such a short time on this planet, to decide that creatures, which have millions of years of existence, should go extinct or not.
It’s quite a disturbing discussion.
And of course you have to also take into account that when one species goes extinct, even if you decide to let it go extinct, you don’t know what the cascading effects will be. Maybe the species serves as a prey for another species. There are so many different interdependencies between different organisms on the planet.
It is really very dangerous to go down that road.
But of course, practically speaking, people make choices. They make choices because some people love cats and therefore cats are the most important creatures in the world so we need to save them. Others would love plants or butterflies.
People would like to get rid of predators because they are competitors to humans. Some don’t like wolves, or they might not like lions for example. Some might want to kill elephants because elephants create damage to crops and fences etc. Many people would like to get rid of snakes because we have a fear of snakes, which is largely unjustified. But snakes have a useful role to play in the ecosystem.
So it would be hard to have a consensus on that question. We could debate it forever without finding a proper solution.
So let’s try to save what species we can. We know we are going to lose many species. We know we have lost many. And we are currently losing many. So let’s not argue about making a dangerous choice, let’s just try to preserve the species we can and simply preserve the diversity and beauty of life.
And if we preserve ecosystems, then we are going to preserve all the creatures that live in these ecosystems.
NEXT MONDAY – MAY 20, 2013: Part 2 of the three-part interview with Jean-Christophe Vié on Saving Threatened Species From Extinction.
Find organizations saving endangered species at Saving Endangered Species.