Gland, Switzerland, 9 December 2021 (IUCN) – The destruction of wetlands is driving the decline of dragonflies worldwide, according to the first global assessment of these species in today’s update of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Their decline is symptomatic of the widespread loss of the marshes, swamps and free-flowing rivers they breed in, mostly driven by the expansion of unsustainable agriculture and urbanisation around the world.

With today’s update, the number of species at risk of extinction on the Red List has exceeded 40,000 for the first time. The IUCN Red List now includes 142,577 species of which 40,084 are threatened with extinction.

“By revealing the global loss of dragonflies, today’s Red List update underscores the urgent need to protect the world’s wetlands and the rich tapestry of life they harbour. Globally, these ecosystems are disappearing three times faster than forests,” said Dr Bruno Oberle, IUCN Director General. “Marshes and other wetlands may seem unproductive and inhospitable to humans, but in fact they provide us with essential services. They store carbon, give us clean water and food, protect us from floods, as well as offer habitats for one in ten of the world’s known species.”

The assessment of the world’s dragonflies and damselflies reveals that 16% out of 6,016 species are at risk of extinction, as their freshwater breeding grounds increasingly deteriorate. In South and Southeast Asia, more than a quarter of all species are threatened, mostly due to the clearing of wetland and rainforest areas to make room for crops such as palm oil. In Central and South America, the major cause of dragonflies’ decline is the clearing of forests for residential and commercial construction.  Pesticides, other pollutants and climate change are growing threats to species in every region of the world, and are the greatest threats to dragonflies in North America and Europe.

Dragonflies are highly sensitive indicators of the state of freshwater ecosystems, and this first global assessment finally reveals the scale of their decline. It also provides an essential baseline we can use to measure the impact of conservation efforts,” said Dr Viola Clausnitzer, Co-chair of the IUCN SSC Dragonfly Specialist Group“To conserve these beautiful insects, it is critical that governments, agriculture and industry consider the protection of wetland ecosystems in development projects, for example by protecting key habitats and dedicating space to urban wetlands.

The Pyrenean desman (Galemys pyrenaicus), a semiaquatic mammal found only in rivers in Andorra, France, Portugal and Spain, has moved from Vulnerable to Endangered. This unusual species is related to moles and has a long, sensitive nose and large webbed feet. It is among the last of its evolutionary line; one of only two remaining desman species in the world. The Pyrenean desman population has declined throughout its range by as much as 50% since 2011, largely due to human impacts on its habitats. Disruption to river flow and reduced water levels as a result of hydropower plant, dam and reservoir construction and water extraction for agriculture make significant areas inhospitable to the desman, isolate populations, and markedly reduce desman prey and shelter. Invasive alien species, illegal fishing using poison, nets and explosives, increasing droughts due to climate change, excavation of riverbeds and banks and water pollution further threaten the desman. Preserving and restoring the natural flow of rivers and surrounding vegetation, controlling invasive alien species and tackling climate change are key for this species to recover.

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Toyota is proud to have contributed to the global dragonfly assessment, the first insect group to be comprehensively assessed on the IUCN Red List,” said a spokesperson of Toyota Motor Corporation. “This achievement will make it possible to track progress in addressing biodiversity loss around the world.

Progress continues towards the Global Tree Assessment with many more tree assessments from across the world added in this update. Although the plight of many trees is serious, there is hope. Published in this update, Terminalia acuminata, a tree thought to be extinct in Brazil, has been rediscovered. Although the species is known from fewer than 300 mature individuals and is considered Endangered, this represents an exciting discovery and a chance to save this species before it is lost forever,” said Emily Beech, Tree Red List Manager at Botanic Gardens Conservation International.

The plight of dragonflies is indicative of a wider crisis threatening many wetland species. As the Red List Authority for birds, BirdLife International has documented worrying population declines in numerous wetland bird species in recent years. This year’s update sees the Maccoa Duck (Oxyura maccoa) of eastern and southern Africa uplisted from Vulnerable to Endangered, due to pollution, entanglement in fishing nets and drainage of wetlands for agriculture,” said Dr Ian Burfield, Global Science Coordinator (Species), BirdLife International.

“Wetlands are of broad societal interest because of the many services they provide humans, but those services would not exist if not for the habitat wetlands provide for many endangered species,” said Dr Sean T. O’Brien, President and CEO of Nature Serve. O’Brien continued, “Our own wellbeing is inextricably connected to that of the natural world, and we must work together to find solutions that rectify the loss of habitat suffered by dragonflies and other essential indicator species.” 

While hydroelectric power appears preferable to non-renewable alternatives, the construction of dams at waterfalls has an immediate impact on water flows. This represents a major threat to waterfall plants with some species restricted to just a single set of falls. Critically Endangered Psychotria torrenticola has only been recorded downstream of the dam on the Memve’ele falls of Ntem River in Cameroon. With the hydroelectric dam expected to be fully operational in 2022, this is one of several species which could be rapidly lost due to changes in seasonal water levels,” said Dr Martin Cheek, Senior Researcher in the Africa team at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Most of Earth’s surface, about 71%, is covered by oceans. But only 3.5% of Earth’s water is freshwater. Humans share this precious resource with all other organisms that live on land. The decline of dragonflies brings again to our attention the need to prioritise investment in freshwater ecosystems, an issue that is often overlooked. For example, SDG 14 in English is “Life Below Water,” while in Spanish it is “Vida Submarina” (Submarine Life), completely ignoring continental waters,” said Dr Jon Paul Rodríguez, Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission.

The decline of the world’s wetlands impacts not only fish and aquatic plants, but also aquatic insects like dragonflies and damselflies and mammals like the evolutionarily unique Pyrenean desman. Beyond this, the loss of these critical habitats will have severe impacts on amphibians and migratory birds globally. Wetlands contain exceptional levels of biodiversity in an extremely small land area, and must receive the highest priority when designating new Key Biodiversity Areas. The loss of wetlands will have a disproportionate impact worldwide,” said Dr. Thomas E. Lacher, Jr., Professor Emeritus at Texas A&M University.

Despite the 2019 IPBES report making it abundantly clear that nature deterioration needs to be urgently addressed, we are still to witness the transformative changes required for governments around the world to become nature positive,” said Dr Nathalie Pettorelli, ZSL Senior Scientist. “Addressing the rapid erosion of our natural capital is not something that can wait; it’s not something optional; it’s not something we can just ignore. Wildlife is our key ally to tackle the numerous societal challenges we face, including the existential threat posed by climate change. Today’s announcement that, for the first time, the number of endangered species has gone over 40,000 should be a wake-up call for all governments ahead of COP15.

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