Planet at a crossroads: Report from the IUCN World Congress

Tony Lynam and Alice Hughes were representing ATBC at the World Conservation Congress of the IUCN — the International Union for the Conservation of Nature — which has just concluded in Hawaii.  Through Alert, Alice Hughes gives us an overview of the event. 

Commencing on September 1, over ten thousand decision-makers from government, environmental and indigenous-peoples groups, the business sector, and academia, convened for the one of the world’s largest conservation meetings.

With representatives from 192 nations, the IUCN World Conservation Congress serves as a barometer for the state of the environment globally, an assessment of global biodiversity and the threats to it.  Its theme, reflecting the many challenging decisions we face ahead, was “Planet at a Crossroads”.


The first five days of the Congress consisted of forums on an array of conservation-related themes, and addressed the need to connect across sectors, cultures, and youth to achieve meaningful change in the world.

Some key commitments concerned the oceans, highlighted by the creation of the largest protected area on Earth, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.  Announced at the start of the Congress, this vast reserve spans over 1.5 million square kilometers and surrounds much of the Hawaiian Archipelago.

Another big concern was the burgeoning global trade in wildlife and wildlife products, which is now estimated to be the fourth-largest illegal trade globally, valued at $7-23 billion annually.

One key debate focused on the trade in ivory, which is a major driver of elephant declines globally.  Most nations favor a global ban on ivory sales but a handful of southern African nations have strongly opposed it.

The impacts of global change were also discussed at length, with the first confirmed loss of a species from contemporary climate change, the Bramble Cay Melomys (Melomys rubicola).  The mammal was endemic to an small Australian cay and was killed off by rising sea levels and floods.

Much discussion focused on how how to avoid further species losses through implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement.


Global biodiversity trends were also highlighted at length.  The IUCN Red List provides cutting-edge information on the distribution, status, and threats to imperiled species.

Currently, nearly 83,000 threatened species have been red-listed, although this is only a fraction of the actual number of species in trouble.

For example, IUCN data show that ten times as many mammal species are declining in numbers than are increasing or have stable populations.  Globally, only eight threatened mammal species have become more abundant, predominantly in Europe and Australia.

Among those suffering serious declines despite concerted conservation efforts are the Great Apes, of which four of six species have had their status downgraded to Critically Endangered.

A major goal announced at the Congress is to list 160,000 threatened species within another four years, protecting vital information for endangered species conservation.


Only 14.7 percent of global land occurs within protected areas.  This number is improving but still falls well below the global goal of 17 percent as outlined in the Aichi targets — which is part of the Convention on Biological Diversity, to which most nations are signatories.

Unfortunately, there are still far too few protected areas in the critical global biodiversity hotspots, which support the bulk of Earth’s endangered species.  Furthermore, 80% of the 18,000 sites listed as key biodiversity areas are currently unprotected.


The IUCN Congress highlighted both good and bad news for the global environment.  Although conservation efforts can save species, the number of imperiled species and habitats is growing daily.  Many ecosystems are being eroded and stripped of their most iconic species.

It is clear that much more effort is needed to protect critical habitats and protect endangered plants and animals, if we are going to stave off one of the biggest biodiversity crises in Earth’s entire geological history.