What is the IUCN Red List?

Jessica Ellis

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) has published a comprehensive list that concerns the conservation status of animal and plant species. The IUCN red list, as it is often known, is considered the largest database of conservation information in the world. The maintenance of the list is a complex process, involving the work of several organizations and requiring constant new research to update status.


In 1963, when the original IUCN red list was created, the organization had been in operation nearly 20 years, since its establishment as a multinational conservation agency in 1948. Originally, the list was relatively small, and the guidelines dictating the available information were fairly primitive. As time passed, increased interest in conservation efforts led to a greater amount of creditable research carried out, and the list grew tremendously. By 1988, all known bird species had been evaluated, and the conservation status of all known mammals was determined by the early 1990s.

Beginning in 1996, the IUCN red list adopted rigorous scientific standards for contributing organizations. Parent groups, called Red List Authorities, are charged with assessing all data of their particular taxonomy, and conservation status of each species must be updated once every ten years. The IUCN red list has many contributing organizations, including BirdLife International, the London Institute of Zoology, and the World Conservation Monitoring Centre. Through intensive peer review and a petition system, the IUCN red list aspires to become the one of the most scientifically accurate databases in the world.

As of 2007, the IUCN red list comprises over 40,000 species of animal and plant life. These species are divided by their conservation status. Status is described by a scale, ranging from extinction to species of least concern. Species normally considered referred to as threatened usually belong to one of three groups: critically endangered, endangered, and vulnerable.

According to the latest available red list statistics, animal and plants are experiencing enormous drop-offs in population levels. Between 1996 and 2007, the number of threatened vertebrate species has jumped from 3314 to 5742, meaning that 23% of all evaluated vertebrate species are suffering serious threats of extinction. Among plants, threatened species have gone from 5328 to 8447.

The IUCN red list strives to keep count of the number of plant and animal extinctions since 1500 CE. As of data available in the most recent year, the number of extinct species has risen to 785, and has posted continuous increases since 2002. While this data is quite depressing for conservationists, the importance of understanding the reality of endangerment and extinction cannot be overestimated. Some experts suggest that the red list is the best tool available to fight the growing list of extinctions.

One of the most important features of the red list is the ability to track the progress of species under protection laws, to determine if the species are actually being aided by efforts. Despite massive conservation campaigns throughout Africa, two species of gorilla have moved from endangered to critically endangered classification. The IUCN red list is able to help identify the problems preventing species recovery, and can help mobilize conservation organizations to focus attention on the most critical factors.

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