Wildlife Trafficking Is the Biggest Threat to Birds on the 2016 IUCN Red List

The updated list, which covers hundreds of newly identified bird species, also details two major conservation successes.

The 2016 International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List is out, and it’s bigger than ever. This year's list—a definitive index of wildlife conservation statuses around the world—recognizes an additional 742 bird species, such as the Saudi Arabian Asir Magpie and the Gran Canaria Blue Chaffinch. It also highlights one of the biggest global threats to avians: illegal trafficking. A total of 13 species are at risk of extinction because of poaching, the IUCN reports. Here are some of the other major changes on the list.

The pet trade is having a serious impact on hundreds of species worldwide.

African Grey Parrots are among the most trafficked birds in the world, and have been bumped up from vunerable to critically endangered by the IUCN. Prized for their ability to imitate human speech, the birds are often lifted from their homes in western African nations and shipped to other continents. More than 1.3 million were exported between 1975 and 2013; the high demand led to a United Nations ban on the global trade of African Grey Parrots this past October. In 2012, a team of researchers from BirdLife International and Manchester Metropolitan University travelled to Ghana to compare the parrots’ current roost numbers to the last documented count in 1992. They discovered a nationwide decline of more than 90 percent over the last decade. The hope is that by up-listing the species, future trade of the birds will be better controlled, allowing wild populations to recover.

Parrots aren’t the only birds that are being crushed by the pet trade. In Indonesia—the nucleus of the avian market in Asia—a cacophony of birdsong fills homes and storefronts. To supply an entire country with birds, there needs to be a high rate of unsustainable harvesting. Three sub-species of White-rumped Shama have already gone extinct due to poaching, and the Grey-rumped Myna is critically endangered. The problem runs much deeper, however—songbirds are a major aspect of Indonesian culture. “It’s a difficult one to tackle because it comes from a genuine love of birds, unlike deforestation or hunting,” says Alex Dale, digital communications officer at BirdLife International. Raising awareness about the plight of the birds is a key step, Dr. Ian Burfield, BirdLife’s global science coordinator, notes. “They may like having their favorite, most colorful, or most vocally capable species in cages and in competitions, but there needs to be awareness that these [birds] are disappearing rapidly from the wild.” In total, six bird species have been upgraded to critically endangered throughout the region, including the Javan Pied Starling and Black-winged Myna.   

Conservation efforts help secure better statuses for two island bird species.

On the flip side, humans did have some positive effects on global bird populations. The Azores Bullfinch and St. Helena Plover, also known as the “Wirebird,” both rebounded from being critically endangered to vulnerable on the latest version of the list. The species are limited to small isles in the Atlantic; the plovers dwell on St. Helena, and the bullfinches inhabit the Portuguese island of Sao Miguel. In 2006, there were only about 208 plovers and 40 breeding pairs of bullfinches remaining due to the intrusion of invasive plants and animals. But thanks to efforts by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Portuguese Society for the Study of Birds to clear non-native vegetation and create new habitat, both species have been down-listed. Conservationists are staying on their toes for the time being. “Bullfinches live on these tiny little patches of woodland in one region of an island, and one thing can wipe them out quickly,” Dale says.

There are 742 “new members” of the bird world.

With more advanced techniques at their disposal, scientists are giving avian taxonomy a major makeover. Wing measurements, coloration, tail length, vocalizations, habitat, genetic studies, and previously published literature helped researchers parse out hundreds of new species and sub-species, Burfield says. The Red-bellied Pitta of Southeast Asia, for example, was split into 12 distinct ones—four of which are recognized as globally threatened on the list. Others face an even sadder fate: The San Cristóbal Vermilion Flycatcher, just identified this fall, is already thought to be extinct. A full illustrated guide to the new species will be published by BirdLife at the end of this month.