Only one of the famed Big Five is not on the endangered list.

Have we forgotten
that wilderness is not a place
but a season
and that we are in its
final hour? - Ian McCallum, Wilderness

Today, Friday May 18, the world observes Endangered Species Day. In South Africa, considering our rich natural heritage, this day should serve as a celebration, but the future of many of our most iconic creatures are hanging in the balance and time is running out to save them.

According to Endangered Wildlife Trust’s red data list of South African mammals, 17% are deemed to be threatened with extinction and 10% are near threatened. In terms of our bird species, Birdlife SA’s research reveal that 132 threatened species are listed as regionally threatened, of which 47 are considered near threatened. The number of bird species in the critically endangered category has increased from five to 13 since 2000.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, which assesses the conservation status of plants, fungi and animals across the globe, show that 281 species with some or all of their range in South Africa are currently classified on the Red List as critically endangered or endangered, and even more are classified vulnerable. Of these, 209 are critically endangered.

What are 'Endangered Species'?
The IUCN Red List has, for the past 50 years, assessed 91 523 species, with the aim to assess 160 000 by 2020. Those that have been accessed are then divided into categories depending on their conservation status. These categories, as outlined by the IUCN have become the global standard for classifying species according to their vulnerability on earth.

In terms of South African legislation, in 2007 the Lists of Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable and Protected Species (more commonly known as the TOPS List or the Threatened or Protected Species List) was promulgated. The IUCN classification of critically endangered,
endangered and vulnerable is reflected in this list.

The IUCN defines an 'endangered species' is one where the best available evidence indicates that the species is considered at very high risk of extinction in the wild, based on assessments which account for population size, geographic range and quantitative analysis showing a high probability of extinction in the wild.

Species listed as 'Critically Endangered', 'Endangered' or 'Vulnerable' all form part of a group considered as ‘threatened’ species. To show the extent of the conservation crises in Africa, and South Africa, four of the beloved Big Five are currently considered 'threatened'.

  1. African Elephant - Vulnerable
  2. African Lion - Vulnerable
  3. African Leopard- Vulnerable
  4. Southern White Rhino - Near Threatened while the Eastern Black Rhino - Critically Endangered
  5. Only the African Buffalo is classified under Least Concern 

SA's Critically Endangered Species
Of the many threatened species in South Africa, not all enjoy public compassion and aid as much as the Big 5.
Frogs and toads, for example, are some of the most commonly found creatures on the IUCN Red List of critically endangered species. Six species, found only in South Africa, including the Table Mountain Ghost Frog, Rough Moss Frog, Northern Moss Frog, Rose’s Mountain Toadlet, Cape Flats Frog and Amathole Toad are currently on critically endangered', with their numbers decreasing annually.

Vultures and South Africa’s scavenging raptors are also on a continual downward spiral, with most of our vulture species as well as the Tawny Eagle and Bateleur, two obligate scavengers, being listed as endangered or critically endangered, Birdlife SA’s Red Data Book shows.

According to André Botha, manager of Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Bird of Prey programme, and the co-chair of the IUCN Vulture Specialist Group, there are "far fewer of these vultures than rhinos in Kruger, and if the killing continues at the current rate, they will all be gone by 2034.”

South Africa’s seabirds fare even worse, deteriorating at a faster rate than any other comparable groups of birds. In South Africa, 45 seabird species are now on the regional red list, accounting for 34% of all threatened bird species in the region.

Some of the other 'Critically Endangered' species in South Africa include:

  • Albany Adder: Once thought to be extinct, this adder was recently rediscovered by a group of scientists from the Endangered Wildlife Trust and the Rainforest Trust.
  • Riverine Rabbit: Endemic to the Karoo, this is one of the most endangered mammals in the world, with only around 500 living adults, and 1500 overall.
  • De Winton's Golden Mole: This little mole is particularly threatened because it occurs in a very small area where natural habitat is threatened by large-scale alluvial diamond-mining operations.
  • Geometric Tortoise: Listed as one of the top 25 most endangered tortoises and turtles in the world, this tortoise’s biggest threat is habitat loss due to commercial farming, climate change and frequent fires in its home range, a very small section in the South-Western Cape.
  • White-winged Flufftail: One of the world’s most threatened and rarest birds, but there is hope for its future in South Africa. BirdLife SA's research team recently revealed the first breeding records for South Africa, contradicting prior thought that the White-winged Flufftail is a non-breeding visitor to SA's wetlands.

What you can do to help

While there are many small victories in the conservation stories listed above, it is concerning is that most of the species listed as 'Critically Endangered' and 'Endangered' are still decreasing in numbers, which means they could soon be downgraded on the Red List to being 'Extinct in the Wild'. In South Africa, Endangered Wildlife Trust has one of the most comprehensive programmes for conservation, including programmes for our carnivores, birds of prey, mammals, aquatic creatures, biodiversity and more.

Courtesy of the Conservation Action Trust. See http://conservationaction.co.za.