The blue-tongued forest giraffe, the national symbol of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is on the brink of extinction, according to the latest update to the Red List of threatened species. The stripy-legged creature, which appears on Congolese banknotes and is actually a species of okapi, has become another victim of the DRC’s long-running war. But surveys reveal that conservation efforts have had a positive effect on ocean-roaming leatherback turtles and albatrosses, while a Californian fox has returned from the edge.
“This Red List update shows some fantastic conservation successes, from which we must learn,” said Jane Smart, a director at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which compiles the list.
“However, the overall message remains bleak. With each update, whilst we see some species improving in status, there is a significantly larger number of species appearing in the threatened categories. The world must urgently scale up efforts to avert this devastating trend,” she added.
The Red List now contains assessments of 71,500 species, including all mammals, birds and amphibians. The latest update added more than 1,000 species. Of the species understood well enough for a judgment to be made, more than a third are under threat. About half of known reptiles have been assessed and a third of fish, but only a fraction of invertebrates, plants and fungi.
Habitat destruction, hunting and the introduction of alien predators as a result of human activity are causing the greatest mass extinction of species on Earth since an asteroid strike wiped out the dinosaurs 65m years ago.
The shy forest giraffe is confined to the fast-disappearing and militia-filled forests of DRC, and its population is plummeting as its meat is prized. “It is revered in Congo as a national symbol but, sadly, DRC has been caught up in civil conflict and ravaged by poverty for nearly two decades,” said Noëlle Kümpel, co-chair of the IUCN Giraffe and Okapi specialist group.
The animal, which has a prehensile blue tongue and zebra-like stripes on its behind, is extremely difficult to protect in an area rife with elephant poachers and illegal mining. In a notorious incident in 2012, armed rebels attacked the headquarters of the DRC’s Okapi Wildlife Reserve and killed seven people and all 14 captive animals.
Other species whose prospects are plunging include the white-winged flufftail, a secretive African wetlands bird threatened by agriculture. “People treat wetlands as wasteland that needs to be drained,” said Craig Hilton-Taylor, manager of the IUCN’s Red List unit in Cambridge.
Assessments have been added for 24 Caribbean skinks – a type of lizard – but it may already be too late. “We went to look for them, but there is no trace,” said Hilton-Taylor. Many may already be extinct, having fallen prey to mongooses that were themselves introduced to tackle an earlier alien predator: rats.