Most ecologists agree that the earth is currently experiencing a mass extinction event. All over the world, living organisms are looking down the barrel of climate change, habitat destruction and exploitation. The most conservative estimates place the number of species lost per year at 10 times the “background rate” (which is calculated from when life began to now).
Most extinctions go undocumented, but some are caught on the pages of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (ICUN) Red List of threatened species. The list contains obituaries for the latest victims of the era, but it’s not all doom and gloom. It contains success stories too — species that have overcome the odds and bounced back, sometimes with help from humans.
For each species that is carefully studied and monitored for the assessment, there are many others that don’t receive the same attention. In fact, most organisms on the planet have never been categorized by scientists. But this just makes the species on the Red List more important. Each one is a stand in for countless living things without a story or a name.
Here are five species from this year’s update to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Read More: 5 Endangered Animals You Should Meet
1. Is the Atlantic Salmon Endangered?
The Atlantic salmon, a fish loved by fisherman and foodies for its rich taste, has moved from the Red List’s “least concern” category to “near threatened.” Though its range still spans the northern Atlantic from Maine to Russia, its numbers have declined sharply in recent years. Scientists estimate that there are 23 percent less Atlantic salmon today than at the time of the last assessment in 2006.
Loss of breeding grounds is perhaps the biggest threat the species faces. Each spring, salmon migrate upstream from the ocean to the chilly headwaters of rivers to mate. But today many of these tributaries are dammed, polluted, or choked with sediment from heavy industry.
To make matters worse, Atlantic salmon are contracting diseases at a higher rate via contact with farmed fish and face a shrinking range due to climate change. In the end, it’s impossible to pin their declining numbers on one factor alone. But the data is clear — these fish are in trouble.
If you're a salmon fan and you want to keep your grocery runs sustainable, it might be better to go with other varieties, like sockeye or pink salmon, for now. You can also check seafoodwatch.org for the latest advice on what to look for.
2. Why Did the Scimitar-Horned Oryx Go Extinct and Is it Back?
The scimitar-horned oryx was once plentiful along the fringes of the Sahara Desert, especially in the Sahel region to the south. Today, there are only around 140 of the antelopes in the wild. That may not sound like much, but this number actually represents a resounding success for conservationists.
The oryx went extinct in the wild during the 1990s. But the species was revived when a collaborative team that included the government of Chad, international conservation biologists and the government of Abu Dhabi signed on for an ambitious conservation project. Captive scimitar-horned oryx were brought from Abu Dhabi to a nature reserve in central Chad in 2016. Since then, game managers have tended to the herd and, periodically, released some of the antelopes back into the wild.
Seven years after the first release, the IUCN is declaring the project a success. Though the animals still face threats from poaching and drought, the herd is on the upswing.
Read More: What Animals Are Going Extinct?
3. Why Is Big Leaf Mahogany Endangered?
Mahogany is a beautiful tree. It grows long and slender with crackled gray bark and huge deep-green leaves. Inside the trunk, the wood is dense, durable, and rich with color — and this is what got the tree into trouble. Mahogany is perhaps the most sought-after lumber for furniture making in the world.
Today big-leaf mahogany occupies only a sliver of its former range in Central and South America, and that sliver is getting smaller. In the latest update, the Red List moved the species from vulnerable to endangered. If illegal logging and habitat loss are not curbed, the tree may be on a fast track to becoming critically endangered.
4. How Many Sonoran Desert Tortoises are Left?
Here in North America, we have a new addition to the Red List: the Sonoran desert tortoise. This foot-long, Mexican-American (it lives in Mexico and Arizona) reptile sports a hardy shell and is camouflaged to blend in with the desert. The species has been added to the Red List and listed as critically endangered, the same designation as its close cousin the Mojave desert tortoise.
Though the tortoise is desert-adapted, it still needs water. The leading threat to the species is drought, which is projected to get worse in the Sonoran Desert as climate change progresses. The tortoise is also losing habitat to urban development, especially here in the U.S.
Read More: Why the Red Panda Is Endangered
5. Are Grey Wolves Endangered?
The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park is one of the best known conservation success stories in America. After wolves were extirpated from the ecosystem by hunting and trapping in the early 20th century, herbivores razed vegetation in wooded areas. This led to the loss of willow, cottonwood and aspen trees, streambank erosion, and the overall degradation of the ecosystem. But, when scientists and park officials brought back the wolves in the mid-1990s, the trees and streams slowly recovered.
Back in the early 1990s, grey wolves were listed as “vulnerable” by the IUCN. But the story of their reintroduction inspired a legacy of conservation efforts. Today, they remain safely in the “least concern category.”
Though wolves only occupy a fraction of their historic range (they were once the most widespread mammals on earth), they are slowly gaining ground. Just this month, Colorado released five wolves into the wild. The move came after voters approved a 2020 ballot measure to reintroduce the species to the state.