The critically endangered cheetah, the world’s fastest land animal, is set to obtain added international protection next week at a United Nations-backed conference seeking to strengthen conservation of species that often cross national borders.
The cheetah, which reaches speeds of up to 120 kilometres per hour but is now racing against extinction with only about 10,000 adults surviving, is among some 30 endangered land and marine animals on the agenda of the 9th conference of parties to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS).
“Species that migrate across countries and continents are facing ever greater hurdles from loss of habitat and feeding grounds to unsustainable use and the unfolding and often complex threats emerging from climate change,” said Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) which administers the CMS.
“Indeed the world is currently facing a sixth wave of extinctions mainly as a result of human impacts. Urgent and accelerated action is needed to ensure that a healthy, productive and functioning planet is handed on to the next generation,” he added.
More than 100 government representatives at the five-day conference, beginning Monday in Rome, will consider proposals to strengthen conservation by putting the animals on CMS appendix I, listing them as in danger of extinction, or appendix II, listing them as suffering from unfavourable conservation status and in need of international cooperation. Some of these animals are important economically, providing a significant source of tourism revenue.
Proposed steps range from tackling over-hunting to removing physical obstacles on the animals’ migratory paths such as border fences to calling for regional agreements for protection.
Migratory animals to be considered include:
- The cheetah, which has suffered a dramatic 90 per cent decline over the past century, becoming extinct in 18 countries of its original range, with less than 10,000 adults surviving in Africa and a meagre 50 in Asia, mainly around Iran's Kavir desert, due to severe habitat loss, over-hunting and poor breeding in captivity.
- The Saiga antelope, which used to roam the Eurasian steppes but is now on the brink of extinction for the second time in just 100 years. After being nearly exterminated in the 1920s, numbers went up to 2 million thanks to Soviet conservation efforts, but have now shrunk to just 50,000 due to hunting and obstacles on migration routes. Today they are confined to isolated pockets in Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Mongolia.
- Barbary sheep, agile climbers of the Sahara and Sahel region of Africa, are now also threatened by unsustainable and illegal hunting. The species is proposed for appendix I, committing all parties to prohibit hunting and removing obstacles to their migration like fences or habitat conversion.
- The African Wild Dog has been eradicated from Western and most of Central Africa, with fewer than 8,000 estimated to survive due to conflict with humans and other animals, as well as infectious diseases. Fences on migration paths also endanger them. The proposed Appendix II listing would call on nations to establish regional agreements for their protection.
Other animals include seven species of whales, dolphins and porpoises, such as the reclusive Irrawaddy dolphins which used to inhabit coastal areas and estuaries throughout south-east Asia. Today, habitat loss, live capture, entanglement in fishing nets, electrocution and boat collisions put the survival of the remaining small populations at risk.
The Black Sea Bottlenose Dolphin, unique to one of the most degraded marine environments in the world, has also suffered from uncontrolled hunting and by-catch, despite the ban on cetacean fishery in the sea since 1983, while the West African Manatee, one of the world’s most camera-shy species, has been endangered by their only significant threat, humankind, due to poaching, habitat loss and other environmental impacts.
Other animals on the agenda include three shark species, spiny dogfish, and seven birds, such as the Saker falcon, prized as hunting companions by royalty and the aristocracy in Central Asia; the Egyptian vulture, poisoned by feeding on carcasses of feral animals laced with pesticides; and the Peruvian tern, threatened by disturbance in its breeding grounds from human activity.
“The Convention on Migratory Species is an important part of our international cooperative response to such challenges. It reflects the shared responsibility of nations for these species as each year they attempt their epic journeys across continents and oceans,” Mr. Steiner said.
Robert Hepworth, Executive Secretary of UNEP-CMS, added: “Many migratory species are now important parts of the local and international economy, generating income and supporting livelihoods via industries such as tourism. For example, an estimated 150,000 people visit the Serengeti (in Tanzania and Kenya) annually in order to see its famous wildlife. Based on 2003 figures, the park generates income of $5.5 million from tourists.”