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Migratory species at risk worldwide, with a fifth in danger of extinction, landmark U.N. report says

From African elephants searching for water, to turtles crossing seas to nest, to albatrosses on their ocean-spanning searches for food, the world's migratory species are under threat across the planet, according to a landmark report Monday.

The first-ever State of the World's Migratory Species assessment, which focuses on the 1,189 species covered by the U.N. Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, found that 1 in 5 is threatened with extinction and 44% are seeing their populations decline.

UN Migratory Species
A volunteer carries a Green Sea Turtle after it was caught temporarily at a feeding site on Itaipu Beach in Niteroi, Brazil, on May 24, 2023. Silvia Izquierdo / AP

Humans are to blame, by destroying or breaking up habitats, hunting and polluting areas with plastics, chemicals, light and noise.

Climate change also threatens to interfere with migration routes and timings, by altering seasonal conditions.

"We are finding out the phenomenon of migration itself is under threat," CMS chief Amy Fraenkel told AFP, adding that the report should be a "wake up call about what's happening."

The report was released as over 130 signatory countries -- with the notable absence of the United States, China, Canada and Russia — gathered for a conference in Samarkand, Uzbekistan from February 12 to 17.

"These are species that move around the globe. They move to feed and breed and also need stopover sites along the way," The Associated Press quoted Kelly Malsch, lead author of the report, as saying.

"Migration is essential for some species. If you cut the migration, you're going to kill the species," Duke University ecologist Stuart Pimm, who was not involved in the report, told the AP. 

UN Migratory Species
A researcher uses a clothes hanger to secure a geo-locator on the leg of a Red Knot shore bird while the glue dries on the north end of Nauset Beach in Eastham, Mass., in September 2013. Stephan Savoia / AP

Migratory species often rely on very specialized sites to feed and mate and their journeys between them can cross international borders and even continents.

Iconic species that make some of the most extraordinary journeys across the planet include the monarch butterfly, the humpback whale and loggerhead turtle.

"Today's report sets out the evidence that unsustainable human activities are jeopardizing the future of migratory species," said Inger Andersen, head of the United Nations Environment Program.

Some factors behind the peril

Among the chief threats are agriculture and fishing.

Farming can destroy habitat, Fraenkel said, while "bycatch" by fishing vessels — when other fish or animals become ensnared by fishing gear — is the biggest continued threat for whales.

She said while habitat destruction is considered the main risk to migratory animals, for some species the report found that it was "intentional killing," either for wild meat or sport, or because the animals are thought of as pests.

"There is a big gap that we've now identified that needs action," she said.

The report, compiled by UNEP's World Conservation Monitoring Center, found that over the past three decades, 70 CMS-listed species have become more endangered, including the steppe eagle, Egyptian vulture and the wild camel.

Just 14 now have an improved conservation status — including blue and humpback whales and the white-tailed sea eagle.

By the numbers  

Of the 158 mammals listed under the convention, 40% are threatened across the globe, according to the report.

Meanwhile almost all — 97% — of the 58 fish species listed are facing a high risk of extinction, including migratory sharks, rays and sturgeons.

More than 960 species of birds are CMS-listed and while only 14∞ were assessed as threatened, the authors stressed this still amounts to some 134 species.

The report also found 399 migratory species — including albatrosses, ground sharks and stingrays — are categorized as threatened or near-threatened but are not yet CMS-listed.

The report, which is intended to feed into the Samarkand conference, includes a focus on species most at risk, highlighting the threats from fishing, farming and pollution.

They echo a flagship biodiversity accord in 2022, when countries agreed to preserve 30% of the planet's land and sea by 2030.

Many of the migratory species listed on CMS provide economic value or "services" useful to humans — from tourism centered on whales, dolphins, elephants and cheetahs to the pollination provided by birds and bats.

But Fraenkel said these species also connect communities across the world, their departures and arrival marking the passing of the seasons.

"They are really magnificent creatures," she said.

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