There’s bad news for India on its biodiversity front. Just under 12% of its vertebrate animal species has entered the threatened category, according to the latest Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).
The IUCN’s Red List is based on monitoring extinction rates of animals and plants between 2006 and 2022 and consists of those species that are vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered, or extinct. So far as the animal category is concerned, India figures among the top 20 countries in terms of the total numbers with 6,848 species. Of these, as many as 813 have been included in the Red List.
Started in 1964, the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species has evolved to become the world’s most comprehensive information source on the global extinction risk status of animal, fungus and plant species. The Red List is a critical indicator of the health of the world’s biodiversity and is also referred to as the ‘Barometer of Life’. There are more than 150,000 species assessed by the IUCN of which 42,100 are threatened with extinction.
Several iconic species of India find mention in the list such as the tiger, the Asian elephant, gharials, vultures, the great Indian bustard, river dolphins, lion-tailed macaques and dholes (Indian wild dogs). There are in addition a number of other less prominent or vilified mammals like bats and rats, reptiles like cobras and tortoises as well as varieties of lizards, toads, the Namdapha flying squirrel and the aquarium fish called the Miss Kerala Look Alike found in the hill streams of the Western Ghats—all of which are important for maintaining biodiversity and ecological balance.
Of the animal species that are threatened, six are believed to be critically endangered or extinct, including five kinds of fish; 118 are critically endangered; 278 are endangered; and 417 are vulnerable. In terms of threatened species identified by the IUCN, 99 are mammals, 91 are birds, 106 are reptiles, 83 are amphibians, 292 are fishes, 7 are molluscs (shelled animals), and 135 are ‘other invertebrates’.
Indonesia with 10,408 species of birds, mammals, fish, reptiles and amphibians, heads the biodiversity list of 20 countries that contains seven other Asian countries, including India and China at seventh and eighth, respectively. No European country figures among the top 20 that has countries from North and South America as well.
Tigers have traditionally been symbols of power but their indiscriminate hunting caused such an alarming decline in number that it led to the establishment of Project Tiger in the early 1970s in India. As a result of the conservation measures, tiger numbers have increased in India and Nepal though they have declined in Southeast Asia. The assessment carried out by the IUCN in 2021 revealed that Laos lost its tigers since 2015 (when the last assessment was carried out) while they appear to be in steep decline in Malaysia.
In December 2020, Phase III of the Integrated Tiger Habitat Conservation Programme (ITHCP) run by the IUCN and financed by Germany was launched to cover India, Nepal, Bhutan and Indonesia. The ITHCP was first started in 2014. The project aims to protect tigers from poaching and to monitor both tigers and their prey. It hopes to help villagers near tiger habitats adopt alternative livelihood practices to reduce poaching, over-exploitation of forest resources and human-wildlife conflict.
The state of the other iconic Indian animal, the elephant, is also not very encouraging given the rapid destruction of its habitat, and it has been categorised by the IUCN as endangered. Sixty percent of wild Asian elephants are found in India. Though their numbers are estimated to be about 50,000 globally, in India there are just under 30,000. The overall population trend of the Asian elephant has been downwards as inferred from habitat reduction, particularly in Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Indonesia, Laos) where elephants have disappeared. In Sri Lanka their population has increased.
The IUCN’s Species Survival Commission (SSC), the Wildlife Trust of India and Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Ohio, US, joined forces in October 2023 to set up a Centre for Species Survival (CSS) in India with special focus on the Asian elephant. This followed the 2022 Kathmandu Declaration for Asian Elephant Conservation that called for cooperation in this endeavour between the 13 countries in Asia where the species is found. It recognised the animal as an “umbrella species whose conservation helps ensure the conservation of myriad other species”. It stressed the importance of preserving the cultural significance of the elephant.
Vultures, once one of the most abundant big bird scavengers, are virtually extinct in large parts of northern and southern India and have been put in the critically endangered category. Only 4,000 to 6,000 species of the White Rumped Vulture and 5,000 to 15,000 Indian Vultures survive. Both species are classified as critically endangered by the IUCN. The steep decline in their numbers is attributed to poisoning by the veterinary drug, diclofenac. Even the Egyptian Vulture, which is found in India, has suffered a catastrophic decline, according to the IUCN.
Found in cities, towns and villages near cultivated areas, the Indian Vulture feeds almost entirely on carrion and often associates with the White Rumped Vulture when scavenging at carcass dumps and slaughterhouses. These birds play a key role in the wider landscape as providers of ecosystem services and were previously heavily relied upon to help dispose of animal remains and in the case of Parsees human remains as well.
Among birds, even the well-known Sarus Crane has been included in the vulnerable category. Though the IUCN assessment puts the number of Sarus Cranes at 19,000 to 21,800 in South Asia, Indo-China and Australia, only 8,000-10,000 birds are left in India, Nepal and Pakistan. The species’ population is on the decline, believed to be the result of loss and degradation of wetlands due to drainage and conversion into agricultural land, ingestion of pesticides, and the hunting of adults and collection of eggs and chicks for trade, food and medicinal purposes and to limit damage to crops.
Gharials, also known as the long-nosed crocodile, are still critically endangered though the good news is that their numbers have grown from 300 to 900. According to the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), they were once widely distributed in all the major river systems of northern India—the Indus, the Ganga, the Brahmaputra and the Mahanadi. But now they are largely confined to three tributaries of the Ganga—the Chambal and Girwa in India and the Rapti-Narayani in Nepal.
Other species on the list include the great Indian bustard (300 remaining birds), the Himalayan quail and river dolphins, besides a variety of toads, frogs, snakes, some varieties of the Mahaseer fish, bats, tortoises, the Kashmir grey langur, the Kashmir musk deer and geckos. There are arachnids like the peacock’s tarantula, mammals like the Namdapha flying squirrel (Arunachal Pradesh) in the list and even a fish species named Miss Kerala Look Alike. Clearly, India needs to step up its conservation efforts if the march towards extinction is to be checked.