A foundational goal: Monitoring threatened species

At its inaugural meeting in 1948, IUCN declared the rescue of endangered species to be a key objective and began to set up instruments to monitor the status of animals and plants worldwide.

Arabian Oryx Photo: Sharon Mollerus (CC BY 2.0)

As far back as the 1930s, the American Committee for International Wildlife Protection began gathering data on rare and threatened species. In the early 1940s, the Committee published its first two inventories, devoted to disappearing mammals, with a volume on birds in preparation. The focus on mammals and birds is easily explained by the background of the leading conservationists of the time. Sportsmen, museum collectors and aviculturalists made up a significant part of the early network of nature protection, strongly influencing the original interests.

Initially, IUCN’s work was very much in line with this early tradition. In 1949, at the first International Technical Conference on the Protection of Nature in Lake Success, two lists were presented: one of 14 mammals and one of 13 birds that were considered of major concern. The same conference also witnessed the inception of the International Survival Office, now known as IUCN’s Species Survival Commission (SSC). The office was tasked with updating the pre-war data sets and creating missions to study the threatened species in question. These initiatives were largely centred on ‘charismatic’ wildlife such as the Arabian oryx and the Asiatic lion.

In the 1960s, the SSC substantially broadened its activities. At IUCN’s General Assembly in Nairobi in 1961, leadership of the Commission was taken over by television personality, painter and WWF co-founder Peter Scott. Various specialist groups on endangered species beyond mammals and birds were formed. Scott initiated the compilation of IUCN Red Lists and Red Data Books to make a complete inventory of the status of the world’s animals and, later, plants. These books documented population numbers, causes of decline, geographical distribution and breeding potential in captivity.

Originally, the Red Data Books were sheets of paper in folders, available only to IUCN staff. It was later decided that the information should also be published as books, made available to the general public, and used to guide priority setting for conservation work on the ground. At IUCN’s General Assembly in Lucerne in 1966, the first two Red Data Books were presented.

In Lucerne, the SSC not only addressed protection of animals in the wild, but also the breeding of threatened species in captivity. While the IUCN community had originally been relatively critical of captive breeding, it now voiced ambition to become its global coordinator. Inspired by common practices in animal husbandry, the SSC recommended the use of international studbooks of rare wild animals, primarily to maintain an overview of their demography and genetic diversity. A Zoo Liaison Committee was set up to oversee these studbooks and to prepare rules and procedures. These studbooks are still kept under the auspices of the SSC in collaboration with the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA).

With Red Lists, Red Data Books and studbooks, IUCN had its most important ‘paper technologies’ of species conservation in place. These are still maintained and updated, and serve as global points of reference. Over the past 50 years, the number of specialists, collaborating organisations and consultants drawn into SSC’s network has continuously increased, as has the number of its specialist groups and sub-committees. This does not mean, however, they have always gone unchallenged. Money issues and competing interests (such as conservation for development and ecosystem preservation) have put the monitoring projects of the SSC under pressure on several occasions.

Since the 1980s, both the Red Lists and studbooks were subdivided by region and sub-specialisation and then digitised. The original objective to monitor and document data on rare and endangered species is now supplemented with action plans and conservation assessment management plans.

With more than 76,000 species assessed for the IUCN Red List and over 1,500 studbooks maintained in zoos, IUCN can be said to act as the bookkeeper of data on threatened species worldwide.


Raf De Bont

Maastricht University, History Department

Nature’s diplomats: Ecological experts and the conservation policy of international organizations (1920-2000)

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