Migratory species face rising extinction risk from human activity – UN report

The first study of its kind highlights habitat loss, hunting and fishing as major pressures on migrating species.

European turtle doves are one of the species listed under the treaty
European turtle dove on a branch European turtle doves are one of the species listed under the treaty (Alamy Stock Photo)

Migratory species are facing a rising threat of extinction in the face of hunting, fishing, habitat destruction, pollution and climate change, a UN report has warned.

The first study of its kind warns the situation is particularly bad for marine creatures, with almost all fish listed for protection under a UN treaty for migratory species threatened with extinction.

Overall, nearly half (44%) of species listed under the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) for needing international protection are suffering population declines, the report found.

More than one in five (22%) of those 1,189 listed species are threatened with extinction, it warned.

The UN report is the first global assessment of the state of the world’s migratory species and has been drawn up by conservation experts for the CMS.

It focuses on the species listed under the convention but draws on data covering a further 3,000 migratory creatures – and finds that the global extinction risk is escalating across the board.

Humpback whales are one of the few species listed under the treaty whose situation has improved
Underwater shot of a humpback whale Humpback whales are one of the few species listed under the treaty whose situation has improved (Alamy Stock Photo)

Billions of animals, fish and birds make migratory journeys each year over the world’s landscapes, through oceans and in the skies, with some making trips of thousands of miles to feed, mate and rear their young.

But the report says they face a combination of threats from human activity, with the loss and damage to habitat, mainly from agriculture, and hunting and fishing, including accidental capture, the two most pervasive problems.

The damage to habitat, as well as obstacles ranging from busy shipping routes to roads, is disrupting the ability of species to travel freely along their migration routes, the study warned.

More than half (58%) of sites that are recognised to be important for species protected under the CMS treaty are facing “unsustainable levels” of human pressure.

Pollution from pesticides, plastics, heavy metals and nutrients as well as underwater noise and light pollution are also a threat to migratory species, while the affects of climate change are already being felt and are expected to increase considerably in the coming decades, the report warned.

Some 70 species listed under the treaty, including Egyptian vultures and wild camels, have become more endangered over the past 30 years.

Just 14 listed species have seen their conservation status improve, including humpback whales and white-tailed sea eagles, the study finds.

It also warns that 399 migratory species which are threatened or near-threatened with extinction are not listed for international protection under the treaty.

The report was drawn up by conservation scientists at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

Inger Andersen, UNEP executive director, said: “Today’s report clearly shows us that unsustainable human activities are jeopardising the future of migratory species – creatures who not only act as indicators of environmental change but play an integral role in maintaining the function and resilience of our planet’s complex ecosystems.

“The global community has an opportunity to translate this latest science of the pressures facing migratory species into concrete conservation action.

“Given the precarious situation of many of these animals, we cannot afford to delay, and must work together to make the recommendations a reality.”

The report, which is being launched at a meeting of countries which are parties to the treaty in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, makes a number of recommendations to help declining migratory species.

They include taking action to protect areas that are vital for migratory species as breeding, feeding and stopover sites, as more than half of the areas identified globally as important for migrating wildlife are not protected.

The report also calls for more efforts to tackle illegal and unsustainable hunting and fishing of migratory species, and reduce bycatch – where wildlife is caught accidentally, for example turtles captured in fishing nets.

And it urges a focus on those most in danger of extinction, such as fish, efforts to scale up action on climate change, light, noise, chemical and plastic pollution and for countries to consider expanding the list of species under the treaty to include more that need international efforts to save them.