Fri, Sep 14, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Vultures, crocodiles and gorillas fight for survival

AP , GENEVA

The redheaded vulture, a bird that thrived in South Asia feeding on the dead, is itself dying out.

The large, keen-eyed scavenger has become critically endangered, one step away from globally extinct, according to this year's Red List of Threatened Species released on Wednesday by the World Conservation Union.

The list revealed that the western gorilla and the Gharial crocodile are also fighting for their future.

In all, 16,306 species are threatened with extinction, 188 more than last year, according to the Swiss-based group, known by its acronym IUCN. One in four mammals are in jeopardy, as are one in eight birds, a third of all amphibians and 70 percent of the plants that have been studied.

``All species are dependent on each other,'' said Peter Walsh, an IUCN assessor who specializes in gorillas. ``The loss of one species can seriously affect the food chain, the levels of oxygen in the air, that kind of thing. For instance, all the vegetables we eat are pollinated by bees. Losing bees would be serious.''

IUCN says 785 living species have disappeared over the last 500 years. A further 65 are found only in artificial settings, like zoos.

The redheaded vulture was once one of the most widespread and abundant vultures in South Asia.

But it soared from ``near threatened'' to critically endangered after large numbers were poisoned by the drug diclofenac, a painkiller given to ill or injured farm cattle. The drug is highly toxic to vultures that feed on livestock carcasses. In India, their numbers declined by 94 percent between 2000 and 2003.

The western gorilla, the most common gorilla in the world, is now critically endangered.

Its main subspecies, the western lowland gorilla, has been decimated by the Ebola virus, which has wiped out about a third of the gorillas found in protected areas over the last 15 years, IUCN said. Commercial hunting, civil unrest and habitat loss due to logging and forest clearance for palm oil plantations are compounding the problem.

"In the last 10 years, Ebola is the single largest killer of apes. Poaching is a close second," Walsh said. "Ebola is knocking down populations to a level where they won't bounce back. The rate of decline is dizzying. If it continues, we'll lose them in 10-12 years."

Only 182 breeding adults of the Gharial crocodile remain, down almost 60 percent from a decade ago. India and Nepal's crocodile has become critically endangered because dams, irrigation projects and artificial embankments have reduced its habitat to just 2 percent of its former range.

Only one species moved to a lesser category of threat. One of the world's rarest parrots 15 years ago, the Mauritius echo parakeet, went from "critically endangered" to "endangered" as a result of close monitoring of its nesting sites and supplementary feeding combined with a captive breeding and release program.

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