The Irish Times view on the UN report on migratory species - further evidence of the toll of human activities

More than a fifth of animals and birds under international protection are threatened with extinction

Billions of animals make migratory journeys across land, seas and skies each year. Crossing countries and continents, many travel vast distances to find food and breed. These migratory species act as critical environmental indicators of the Earth’s wellbeing, while playing an integral role in maintaining complex ecosystems.

Their conservation status and risk of extinction have been charted for the first time in a new United Nations assessment and it is yet another indication of the detrimental impact of human activities on the planet. It charts the dangers these species are facing, and what can be done to arrest their decline, requiring a collective transnational effort.

More than a fifth of migratory species under international protection are threatened with extinction. The report focuses on 1,189 animal species recognised as needing international protection and listed under the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) – a UN biodiversity treaty. Nearly half are showing population declines with unrelenting pressure from habitat loss and over-exploitation. Climate disruption, ever encroaching invasive species and rampant over-fishing are adding to the toll. The stakes are high as they play a key role in pollinating plants, transporting nutrients, preying on pests and helping to store carbon.

Nearly all CMS-listed species of fish – including migratory sharks, rays and sturgeons – are facing “a high risk of extinction”, with their populations declining by 90 per cent since the 1970s. It found 399 migratory species – including many albatrosses, perching birds, ground sharks and stingrays – are categorised as threatened or near-threatened but are not yet CMS-listed.

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Gorillas and nearly half of all turtles covered by the convention are in danger of disappearing, while those experiencing declines include the critically endangered European eel, which is native to Irish rivers, bar-tailed godwits which fly extraordinary distances nonstop between Alaska and Australia, and the straw-coloured fruit bat which undertakes the largest mammal migration across Africa. Over the past 30 years, 70 CMS-listed migratory species – including the steppe eagle, Egyptian vulture and wild camel – have become more endangered.

The report comes as governments gather for a summit in Uzbekistan to discuss how to better protect migratory species. This is the opportunity to translate this latest scientific data into concrete conservation action. They should begin by moving to map comprehensively vital locations that serve as breeding, feeding and stopover sites while scaling up their protection. The Government has committed to protecting 30 per cent of Irish land and sea by 2030 including mapping vulnerable sites, but has only made modest progress with that ambition. Time is running out.