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Conserv Biol. 2009 Dec;23(6):1568-76. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2009.01260.x. Epub 2009 Jun 8.

The need to rationalize and prioritize threatening processes used to determine threat status in the IUCN Red List.

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  • 1Mammal Research Institute, Polish Academy of Science, ul. Waszkiewicza 1, 17-230 BiaƂowieza, Poland.


Thorough evaluation has made the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List the most widely used and accepted authority on the conservation status of biodiversity. Although the system used to determine risk of extinction is rigorously and objectively applied, the list of threatening processes affecting a species is far more subjectively determined and has not had adequate review. I reviewed the threats listed in the IUCN Red List for randomly selected groups within the three most threatened orders of mammals: Artiodactyla, Carnivora, and Primates. These groups are taxonomically related and often ecologically similar, so I expected they would suffer relatively similar threats. Hominoid primates and all other terrestrial fauna faced similar threats, except for bovine artiodactyls and large, predatory carnivores, which faced significantly different threats. Although the status of bovines and hominoids and the number of threats affecting them were correlated, this was not the case for large carnivores. Most notable, however, was the great variation in the threats affecting individual members of each group. For example, the endangered European bison (Bison bonasus) has no threatening processes listed for it, and the lion (Panthera leo) is the only large predator listed as threatened with extinction by civil war. Some threatening processes appear spurious for the conservation of the species, whereas other seemingly important factors are not recorded as threats. The subjective nature of listing threatening processes, via expert opinion, results in substantial biases that may be allayed by independent peer review, use of technical manuals, consensus among multiple assessors, incorporation of probability modeling via decision-tree analysis, and adequate coordination among evaluators. The primary focus should be on species-level threats rather than population-level threats because the IUCN Red List is a global assessment and smaller-scale threats are more appropriate for national status assessments. Until conservationists agree on the threats affecting species and their relative importance, conservation action and success will be hampered by scattering scarce resources too widely and often by implementing conflicting strategies.

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