Close to half of migratory species are in serious decline: UN report

Human activity is the primary cause, according to the first report of its kind.
A mother and calf humpback whale swim underwater.
Humpback whales have improved their conservation status over the past 30 years, but many other migratory species are at risk of extinction. Deposit Photos

Almost half of the migratory species on Earth monitored by the United Nations are declining and more than one-fifth are currently threatened with extinction. These stark numbers come from the first State of the World’s Migratory Species report released by the UN’s Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) on February 12.

[Related: These new interactive maps reveal the incredible global journeys of migrating birds.]

Billions of animals including sea turtles, wildebeest, fruit bats, and pelicans make annual migratory journeys by water, land, and air. Some travel thousands of miles to eat and reproduce, while crossing national boundaries and continents. They provide a vital role in the ecosystem, by pollinating plants, being part of the food web, transporting nutrients, and helping store excess carbon. 

Why are migratory species in trouble?

The report focuses on 1,189 specific animal species that have been recognized by CMS as in need of international protection. About 22 percent including are threatened with extinction and that risk is growing worldwide. Nearly every CMS-listed species of fish–including migratory sharks, rays, and sturgeon–are facing a high risk of extinction. Their populations have declined by 90 percent since the 1970s.

Overexploitation and habitat loss from human activity are cited as the two biggest threats to migratory species. Three out of four species are impacted by habitat loss and further degradation and fragmentation of the regions that they live in. About seven out of 10 species are impacted by overexploitation–activities like hunting and poaching. Invasive species, pollution, and climate change are also impacting migratory species.

Some of the migratory species listed under CMS are improving. About 14 listed species including the blue whale, humpback whale, white-tailed sea eagle, and black-faced spoonbill have improved their conservation status. However, 70 migratory species have become more endangered over the past three decades. These include the wild camel, Egyptian vulture, and steppe eagle. 

“Today’s report clearly shows us that unsustainable human activities are jeopardizing 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,” UN Environment Programme Executive Director Inger Andersen said in a statement

An international solution

The report was released at the beginning of a world summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, to discuss better ways to protect the world’s migratory species. The species listed are at risk of extinction across most or all of their range, so they need a coordinated international collaboration to boost their protection. 

[Related: We don’t have a full picture of the planet’s shrinking biodiversity. Here’s why.]

The report was prepared for CMS by conservation scientists at the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre. According to the UN, it uses robust data sets and includes expert contributions from institutions including BirdLife International and the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“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,” CMS Executive Secretary Amy Fraenkel said in a statement. “They face enormous challenges and threats along the way, as well as 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.”

The report recommends that human infrastructure near the areas that migratory species use to travel should be minimized. The team also stressed more work to understand the landscape, seascape, and flyways that are critical to migratory species to boost conservation efforts. 

“The reason why species are covered by the convention is because they are in trouble – it is not surprising to find that some of them are endangered,” Fraenkel told The Guardian. “The problem is the trend: 44 percent of listed species are in decline and that increasing extinction risk is something that applies globally to migratory species.”

Participants of this five day UN meeting plan to evaluate proposals for new conservation methods and whether or not to formally list new species of concern. According to the Associated Press, eight governments from South America are expected to jointly propose adding two species of declining Amazon catfish to the list of migratory species of concern. Governments pledged to protect 30 percent of Earth’s land and water resources during the 2022 UN Biodiversity Conference.