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'Red List' Sheds Light on Species Extinction Crisis

Scientists have released an updated list of the world's most endangered plants and animals. It's called the Red List, and it's widely viewed as the world's most authoritative guide to the status of disappearing plants animals. Scientists from all over the world help the World Conservation Union keep the Red List up to date.

"We get very excited about the release of the Red List and perhaps we shouldn't be, because actually it's a very bad news story," says Jane Smart, who leads the listing effort for the World Conservation Union. "But for those of use who work in the field, I feel that the only way we are going to get society to pay attention to what's happening to our species is to tell everybody."

Smart helped take the wraps off the 2007 version of the Red List at a press conference in Washington, D.C. The 2007 list is the longest Red List ever, with entries for a total 41,415 rare and threatened plants and animals. Some are described as merely vulnerable, but more than 16,000 are said to be at least endangered. And one has now been officially reclassified as gone forever, according to botanist Mike Hoffman of Conservation International. It's a species of begonia from Malaysia that hasn't been found in more than 100 years.

The new Red List makes it clear that a lot more species could soon go the way of the Malaysian woolly-staked begonia. Leading candidates include an Indonesian Cardinalfish coveted by aquarium owners, an Indian crocodile threatened by dam-building and sand-mining, and almost every species of chimapzee, orangutan and gorilla.

Russ Mittermeier, head of Conservation International, says people don't realize how rare these apes have become.

"If you took all of the world's remaining great apes, all of the remaining individuals would fit into two or three football stadiums, and that's it," Mittermeier says.

He says great apes are being ravaged by diseases like the Ebola virus, and by hunters who sell their meat.

"And if any of you doubt that bush meat markets are a major issue, I invite you to come to one of the markets in western or central Africa," Mittermeier says. "I was just in Liberia a few weeks ago and they were very scary places." He says there were stacks of smoked meat from primates and other forest animals.

There is some good news in the Red List. For example, many snakes and reptiles are doing better than expected in the United States.

But even the most optimistic of experts predict that the Red List will keep growing in the years ahead. That's partly because the status of many marine species is now being assessed. This year, for instance, the first three species of coral were added to the Red List, along with several different kinds of seaweed. Hundreds of other species that live in the ocean could be added next year when the list is updated again.

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John Nielsen
John Nielsen covers environmental issues for NPR. His reports air regularly on NPR's award-winning news magazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition. He also prepares documentaries for the NPR/National Geographic Radio Expeditions series, which is heard regularly on Morning Edition. Nielsen also occasionally serves as the substitute host for several NPR News programs.
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