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Future of migratory species

Landmark UN report reveals the world’s migratory species of animals are in decline, and the global extinction risk is increasing
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Close up of Steppe eagle

Main image: The Steppe eagle

The first State of the World’s Migratory Species report was launched today (12 Feb) by the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), a UN biodiversity treaty, at the opening of a major UN wildlife conservation conference (CMS COP14).

The landmark report reveals that while some migratory species listed under CMS are improving, nearly half (44%) are showing population declines.

More than one in five (22%) of CMS-listed species are threatened with extinction.

Nearly all (97%) of CMS-listed fish are threatened with extinction.

The extinction risk is growing for migratory species globally, including those not listed under CMS.

Half (51%) of Key Biodiversity Areas identified as important for CMS-listed migratory animals do not have protected status, and 58% of the monitored sites recognised as being important for CMS-listed species are experiencing unsustainable levels of human-caused pressure.

Threats to migratory species

The two greatest threats to both CMS-listed and all migratory species are overexploitation and habitat loss due to human activity.

Three out of four CMS-listed species are impacted by habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation, and seven out of ten CMS-listed species are impacted by overexploitation (including intentional taking as well as incidental capture).

Climate change, pollution and invasive species are also having profound impacts on migratory species.

The latest science

Globally, 399 migratory species that are threatened or near threatened with extinction are not currently listed under CMS.

Until now, no such comprehensive assessment on migratory species has been carried out.

The report provides a global overview of the conservation status and population trends of migratory animals, combined with the latest information on their main threats and successful actions to save them.

‘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.’

Executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme

Why we need migratory species

Billions of animals make migratory journeys each year on land, in the oceans and in the skies, crossing national boundaries and continents, with some travelling thousands of miles across the globe to feed and breed.

Migratory species play an essential role in maintaining the world’s ecosystems and provide vital benefits, by pollinating plants, transporting key nutrients, preying on pests and helping to store carbon.

Prepared for CMS by conservation scientists at the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), the CMS State of the World’s Migratory Species report uses the world’s most robust species data sets and features expert contributions from institutions including BirdLife International, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

Risk of extinction

The main focus of the report is the 1,189 animal species that have been recognised by CMS Parties as needing international protection and are listed under CMS, though it also features analysis linked to over 3,000 additional non-CMS migratory species.

Species listed under the Convention are those at risk of extinction across all or much of their range, or in need of coordinated international action to boost their conservation status.

‘Migratory species rely on a variety of specific habitats at different times in their lifecycles. They regularly travel, sometimes thousands of miles, to reach these places. They face enormous challenges and threats along the way, as well at their destinations where they breed or feed.

‘When species cross national borders, their survival depends on the efforts of all countries in which they are found. This landmark report will help underpin much-needed policy actions to ensure that migratory species continue to thrive around the world.’

CMS executive secretary

Cross-sector action is needed

While there have been positive trends for numerous CMS species, the report’s findings underscore the need for greater action, for all migratory species.

The listing of species under CMS means that these species require international cooperation to address their conservation.

But many of the threats facing these species are global drivers of environmental change – affecting biodiversity loss as well as climate change.

Addressing the decline of migratory species therefore requires action across governments, the private sector and other actors.

Species status

Over the past 30 years, 70 CMS-listed migratory species – including the steppe eagle, Egyptian vulture and the wild camel – have become more endangered.

This contrasts with just 14 listed species that now have an improved conservation status – these include blue and humpback whales, the white-tailed sea eagle and the black-faced spoonbill.

Most worryingly, nearly all CMS-listed species of fish – including migratory sharks, rays and sturgeons – are facing a high risk of extinction, with their populations declining by 90% since the 1970s.

Impact of human activity

Analysing the threats to species, the report shows the huge extent to which the decline in migratory species is being caused by human activities.

The two greatest threats to both CMS-listed and all migratory species were confirmed as overexploitation – which includes unsustainable hunting, overfishing and the capture of non-target animals such as in fisheries – and habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation – from activities such as agriculture and the expansion of transport and energy infrastructure.

One key priority is to map and take adequate steps to protect the vital locations that serve as breeding, feeding and stopover sites for migratory species.

The report shows that nearly 10,000 of the world’s Key Biodiversity Areas are important for CMS-listed migratory species, but that more than half (by area) are not designated as protected or conserved areas.

58% of monitored sites important for CMS-listed species are under threat due to human activities.

The report also investigated how many migratory species are at-risk but not covered by the Convention.

It found 399 migratory species – mainly birds and fish, including many albatrosses and perching birds, ground sharks and stingrays – are categorised as threatened or near-threatened but are not yet CMS-listed.

Action is possible

While underscoring the concerning situation of many species, the report also shows that population and species-wide recoveries are possible and highlights instances of successful policy change and positive action, from local to international.

Examples include coordinated local action that has seen illegal bird netting reduced by 91% in Cyprus, and hugely successful integrated conservation and restoration work in Kazakhstan, which has brought the Saiga Antelope back from the brink of extinction.

The State of the World’s Migratory Species report issues a clear wake-up call, and provides a set of priority recommendations for action.

UN wildlife conservation conference

The UN wildlife conservation conference (CMS COP14) starting today (12 Feb) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan is one of the most significant global biodiversity gatherings since the adoption of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (Biodiversity Plan).

It will also be the first COP of any global environmental treaty to take place in Central Asia, a region home to many migratory species including the saiga antelope, the snow leopard and many species of migratory birds.

Governments, wildlife organisations and scientists have come together at the week-long meeting to consider actions to advance implementation of the Convention.

The State of the World’s Migratory Species report will provide the scientific grounding along with policy recommendations to set the context and provide valuable information to support the deliberations of the meeting.

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