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What does "endangered" actually mean?

Who decides?

I'm sure you've come across the term "endangered species" many times, but few people explain what actually makes them considered such. The classification of the degree of endangered species is dealt with primarily by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The list also includes plants and fungi, but we are obviously most interested in animals.

There is a division into the following grades:

  • extinct - representatives of the species may exist in captivity, but not in nature

  • critically endangered - species most threatened with extinction on a global scale

  • endangered - species threatened with extinction on a global scale

  • vulnerable - species that are least threatened with extinction on a global scale

  • near threatened - species which are close to the threshold of threat or which would be endangered if no protective actions were taken

  • least concern - species with a low risk of extinction

  • no data - assessment not possible due to insufficient data

There are other organizations (mainly governmental) that create smaller lists, taking particular areas into consideration. Nomenclature and classification remain synonymous with division introduced by IUCN.

Counting not so easy

Criteria mentioned above are universal for every species but there is no standard number of specimens that indicates the species as threatened. It depends on distribution area, number of adult individuals, average age of current generation and many other factors, so for every species numbers are different. The degree of threat is assigned to the species according to these calculations.

Publication “IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria” accurately describes how the ratios are calculated. For example, for animal to be considered critically endangered it must meet one of the following conditions:

  • decrease in population higher than 80%

  • very small area of occurrence

  • less than 250 adult individuals with prognosis of decrease 

  • less than 50 adult individuals

  • 50% probability of extinction over 10 years period

Details about these conditions are available here.

Rescuing wild cats

While the seven largest species of wild cats do not suffer from shortages of human attention, their smaller brethren are not so lucky. The smaller wild cats are far less known and unfortunately far less studied. The flat-headed cat is so rare that it was thought to be extinct for 10 years. The Andean cat is only seen in phototrap images. Increased knowledge of the species is essential to enable effective action to ensure their extension. 

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