- A drastic decline in the sea otter, one of the animal
kindom's best-loved extroverts, has surprised scientists compiling the
red list of endangered species, published this week by the International
Union for the Conservation of Nature.
- Each year thousands of tourists watch the sea otter swimming
on its back and using its chest as a dining table in the harbour at Monterey,
California, where John Steinbeck set his novel Cannery Row.
- The sardines which the cannery, now a museum, used to
can, have been fished out by the shoal, now it is the otter which is in
decline, although American scientists cannot or are reluctant to pinpoint
the connection with fisheries.
- The IUCN's otter specialist group said the mammal was
declining at up a rate of upto four per cent off the Californian coast
and at 90 per cent in Alaska. It is extinct already in Japan and at risk
from poaching in Russia. The sea otter, absent from the 1996 red list,
could be the victim of oil pollution, predation by killer whales and "conflict
with fisheries and incidental kills". However, there is no conclusive
- Craig Hilton-Taylor, of the IUCN's Red List programme,
based in Cambridge, said: "It doesn't add up. Something is going on
behind the scenes." The red list showed that a quarter of mammal species,
one in eight bird species, a third of freshwater fish species and half
the plants studied were now under threat of extinction.
- The number of albatross species threatened was up from
three to 16. The wandering albatross, other species of albatross and large
petrel eat the bait from hooks set by long-line fishing vessels before
they sink and are dragged to their deaths. Two fish species are newly listed
as critically endangered: the common sawfish, once abundant in the Mediterranean
and eastern Atlantic but extremely vulnerable to by-catch in other fisheries,
and the Brazilian guitar fish.
- The whale shark and the flapnosed hound shark were on
the list for the first time. Britain has two new species listed as threatened:
the small-eyed ray, recorded in the Bristol Channel, which is caught as
a by-catch by trawlers, and a Cornish moss, ditrichum cornubicum, which
grows only on copper mine waste.
- The number of critically endangered primates has risen
from 13 to 19. The orang-utan, for example, moved from being regarded as
vulnerable to endangered, while the Sumatran orang-utan (a sub-species)
was listed as critically endangered.
- Other mammals which have moved into the critically endangered
category include the Tamaraw, a smaller Asian relative of the water buffalo,
the woolly spider monkey and the northern muriqui, both from Brazil, and
the Bonin fruit bat, from Japan. Some 128 bird species have died out over
the past 500 years and more than 100 since 1800, which is 50 times the
- Conservationists believe 500 species will become extinct
over the next 100 years if present trends continue. Among other trends
in the report, to be discussed by an IUCN congress in Amman next week,
was a decline in tortoises and freshwater turtles due to exploitation for
food and medicinal use.
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