While extinctions are a normal part of life, we are in the midst of an extinction crisis. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), one of the world’s most pressing crises is the loss of biodiversity – the variety of animals, plants, and their habitats – on which so much of life, including human life, depends. It is estimated that the rate of plant and animal extinctions is currently 100 to 1,000 times greater than the average extinction rate was throughout evolutionary history (Lawton and May, 1995). As human populations grow, this rate is predicted to escalate further.
Habitat loss and fragmentation due to conversion to agriculture and increased human development; the unsustainable harvesting of plant and animals species; pollution; and the introduction of invasive species are all believed to be contributing to this worldwide decline in species diversity.
The IUCN estimates that 25% of mammal species, over 12% of bird species, and over 30% of reptile species are at risk of extinction.
Extinction is forever.
Since the arrival of European settlers in Canada, 12 species have gone extinct, including the passenger pigeon which used to blacken our skies, and 21 have become extirpated (disappeared from Canada but found either in captivity or elsewhere in the wild). In Canada, over 640 species are considered at risk of extinction by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). Of these close to 300 are terrestrial animal species (amphibians, arthropods or insects, birds, mammals and reptiles). COSEWIC assesses species as:
Extinct (X) — A wildlife species that no longer exists.
Extirpated (XT) — A wildlife species that no longer exists in the wild in Canada, but exists elsewhere.
Endangered (E) — A wildlife species facing imminent extirpation or extinction.
Threatened (T) — A wildlife species likely to become endangered if limiting factors are not reversed.
Special Concern (SC) — A wildlife species that may become a threatened or endangered species because of a combination of biological characteristics and identified threats.
Data Deficient (DD) — A category that applies when the available information is insufficient (a) to resolve a wildlife species’ eligibility for assessment or (b) to permit an assessment of the wildlife species’ risk of extinction.
Not At Risk (NAR) — A wildlife species that has been evaluated and found not to be at risk of extinction given the current circumstances.
Wildlife Preservation Canada exists to prevent further animal extinctions. In 2010 WPC developed a Conservation Action Plan that prioritizes COSEWIC listed species which a) are “extirpated”, “endangered” or “threatened” and b) for which some form of intervention beyond habitat protection alone is required to prevent extinction or extirpation and recover the populations to sustainable levels. Between 30% and 40% of species at risk in Canada require more than habitat preservation to survive – WPC’s conservation work focuses on this group which now numbers 45 species.