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Every year, as the seasons change, billions of animals embark on journeys to find food, reach better habitats, or breed. They migrate in groups and as individuals, flying, swimming, crawling and walking across international borders and across habitats to survive, transporting seeds and nutrients.
A major new United Nations report finds that humans are not only making those journeys more difficult, but have also put many migratory species in a perilous state.
Nearly half of the world's already threatened migratory species have declining populations the first UN report of its kind found. More than a fifth of the nearly 1,200 migratory species monitored by the UN, whales, sea turtles, monkeys, songbirds and others are threatened with extinction.
“These are amazing species that make incredible journeys, in some cases, that are economically beneficial. [for humans]as well as things of poetry, song and cultural significance,” said Amy Fraenkel, executive secretary of the UN Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals.
The report, compiled by conservation scientists, is the most comprehensive assessment of the world's migratory species ever conducted. It looked at 1,189 different species that are already protected by the Convention on Migratory Species, a 1979 treaty aimed at protecting species that move across international borders to see if conservation efforts are working.
In some cases, they are. Wildlife crossings are helping animals cross roads and fences. The regulations are helping to prevent poaching and overconsumption of some threatened fish and mammals. Protecting habitat is giving species room to move and thrive.
However, to reverse population decline, the report's authors said, those “efforts must be strengthened and scaled up.”
The publication is the latest global report raising concerns about the planet's non-human inhabitants. A 2019 assessment of the world's biodiversity found that 1 million of Earth's estimated 8 million species are at risk of extinction, many within decades, due to human activities such as overconsumption, deforestation, pollution and development. A 2022 report from the World Wildlife Fund found that wildlife populations have declined by average 69% in the last 50 years.
For migratory species, threats from human activities may be amplified. Protections for species vary from country to country. The application of conservation laws may vary by location.
Overexploitation of hunting and fishing and habitat loss from human activities were identified as the two biggest threats to migratory species, according to the new report. Invasive species, pollution including light and sound pollution and climate change also have profound impacts, the report said.
Many species migrate with the changing seasons. Human-caused climate change is changing seasons, the lengthening of summer, the shortening of winter and the shift of spring and autumn time. Scientists have documented animals, like birds in North America, adjusting the timing of their migrations to accommodate those shifts. Not everyone is keeping pace with the change, leading to what scientists call phenological asynchrony.
World leaders from the 133 countries that have signed the Convention on Migratory Species are meeting this week in Uzbekistan to chart a way forward.
The new report, Fraenkel said, should give the parties a sense of urgency, but it should also be a guide for anyone “who wants to continue to see birds flying and whales jumping in the water,” she said. “Look at this report and find something [you] can do to help these incredible species continue to survive.”
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