- Brazil is the canary in the coal mine for the neotropics, indicating the potential future if the rest of the developing world follows the globally inherited pathway to success, Bennett writes.
- Brazil has the highest number of threatened birds in the world with IUCN listing 164 threatened bird species divided between 24 Critically Endangered, 45 Endangered and 95 Vulnerable.
- "In most countries, a Critically Endangered bird is instantly the top conservation priority. But in Brazil, with so many birds on the brink of extinction, conservationists must subdivided Critically Endangered into emergency, stable, and cannot find."
We are told that you can neatly divide the countries of the world into developed nations, developing nations, and the BRICS nations — the countries that are on the cusp of becoming developed, considered to be Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.
Brazil is the nation in the new world tropics closest to joining the developed club. As such, Brazil is the canary in the coal mine for the neotropics, indicating the potential future if developing countries follow the globally inherited pathway to success.
Unfortunately, the canary is wobbly on its perch.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List is the global standard used to identify species in threat of extinction. The IUCN lists threatened wildlife species from the most threatened, or “Critically Endangered,” to “Endangered” and “Vulnerable to Extinction,” with the lowest threat level being “Near Threatened.” The IUCN has developed rigorous criteria to rank species according to their population size, habitat area, rate of population decline, and the level of future threat. Thus, a threatened species designation is based on objective criteria and the best data that exists, and should not be manipulated with subjective opinions.
In conservation, there is a lot of “my backyard” syndrome, where individuals want to save what they see, know, like, or think is beautiful. That’s why so many parks are based around waterfalls or a beautiful lookout point. But if we really want to halt the extinction rate, we need to go beyond naive conservation ideas and ensure species extinction priorities are met.
The IUCN has developed a clear standard to ensure that the true species that are at risk of extinction are identified. It is not perfect, for example listing species well protected in parks as threatened with extinction because the population outside of the park is in serious decline, but it is an important tool for identifying priorities for conservation.
The non-profit organization BirdLife International has taken on the task of updating and analyzing birds for the IUCN Red List, and its findings are publicly available through its Data Zone web pages. It should be noted that the US has created the Endangered Species Act whereby the US also classifies species as Endangered, but this mostly only applies to species within the US. The US Endangered title is all-encompassing, whereas the IUCN Endangered designation is for a specific level of threat.
For South America, the IUCN Red List has been developed mostly by ornithologists from developed nations based on personal research, birdwatcher opinions, and English publications. But recently, in Brazil, this trend has changed. The Instituto Chico Mendes de Conservação da Biodiversidade (ICMBio) brought together Brazil’s top ornithological minds to evaluate birds strictly adhering to the detailed IUCN threatened criteria. The conclusion was the 2014 ICMBio Threatened Wildlife of Brazil publication (in Portuguese). There are many country-based Red Lists, but few follow the globally accepted IUCN criteria. As ICMBio objectively used the IUCN criteria, its new classification of Brazilian endemic birds should be directly established into the global IUCN Red List.
Brazil has the highest number of threatened birds in the world, with the IUCN listing 164 threatened bird species divided between 24 Critically Endangered, 45 Endangered, and 95 Vulnerable. The new ICMBio 2014 review largely confirms those numbers with 165 globally threatened birds, consisting of 28 Critically Endangered, 55 Endangered, and 82 Vulnerable species. In most countries, a Critically Endangered bird is instantly the top conservation priority. But in Brazil, with so many birds on the brink of extinction, conservationists must subdivided Critically Endangered into emergency, stable, and cannot find.
What ICMBio’s total number of threatened species does not include is the six species Brazilian experts have declared extinct. Some criticize the IUCN Red List for being too cautious in designating species as extinct, which can have the negative effect of painting a prettier picture of our extinction rate, instead of a slap-in-the-face wake-up call about human induced extinctions. ICMBio states the Glaucous Macaw and the Eskimo Curlew are extinct, as are the Brazilian Endemic Belem Curassow, Pernambuco Pygmy-owl, Alagoas Foliage-gleaner, and Cryptic Treehunter. The Alagoas Foliage-gleaner slipped into extinction in the last five years without fanfare. The Brazilian bruised canary shows that as humanity “develops” the world, causing the planet’s sixth catastrophic global extinction event, we need to note the number of threatened species per-country coupled with the number of extinct species progress has suffocated.
Brazil is famous for its Amazonian jungle, but that is just a part of the complete picture as there is a wide variety of habitats in the entire country. It is true — in the west — that Brazil has a massive area of tropical rainforest, but as you move further east and south, the land dries, becoming more open with dry-season-adapted plants. These large areas are classified as Catinga and Cerrado habitats. As you approach the ocean the rains increase, creating the Atlantic forest, which spans along the coast from Northeastern Brazil and heading south until the forest dissipates into grasslands near the border with Uruguay and Argentina.
Many closed forest bird species occur in the Amazon forest and in the Atlantic Forest, the majority with a gap of 900 miles of Catinga and Cerrado between the two populations. Some species evolved notably different characteristics that at least suggest a subspecific form, whereas, for others, the differences remain subtle, or hidden in the DNA.
Unlike the IUCN Red List for birds, ICMBio also reviewed many birds down to the subspecies level, listing 65 threatened subspecies, 12 Critically Endangered, 15 Endangered and 39 Vulnerable. Over 90 percent of these birds are only found in Brazil’s east coast Atlantic forest, where it would appear many of these species have been separated for over 200,000 years from the Amazon rainforest. It is very likely that some of the species that have evolved different characteristics between two populations will some day be considered fully distinct species as we continue to improve our understanding of Brazilian avifauna.
ICMBio has recognized five species that should be downlisted from Critically Endangered to Endangered. They are the Cone-billed Tanager, Bahia Tapaculo, White-collared Kite, Hoary-throated Spinetail, and the Grey-breasted Parakeet. Habitat for these species has remained unchanged for the first four, but our knowledge of their distribution and population has improved. Thankfully, these populations were not as weak as predicted.
The White-collared Kite survives on the edge of several remaining fragments of Northeastern Atlantic forest. It is hard to know how it holds on, an isolated pair separated by an ocean of sugar cane from another isolated pair miles away — but they appear to maintain themselves and suggest that nature still has some remarkable robustness.
The only conservation product from this list is the standing-ovation-worthy results of the efforts of Fabio Nunes and the non-profit Aquasis, who have tried and tried again to find the right artificial nest for the Grey-breasted Parakeet. Thanks to support by Loro Parque Fundacion and American Bird Conservancy, its present reproduction success flies off the charts. It shows that dedication and thoughtful conservation can have amazing results with conscientious investments.
As improved Brazilian faunal knowledge has demonstrated species that could be downlisted, it has also found other species with dwindling populations. ICMBio presents six Brazilian endemic species as Endangered that IUCN listed as Near-Threatened. Recent research found the Hooded Visorbearer, Diamantina Tapaculo, and the Sincora Antwren declining in a unique area of Catinga in the Chapada Diamantina area. The Buff-throated Purpletuft and Long-tailed Woodnymph are declining in fragments of Atlantic forest and the Brasilia Tapaculo lives in small isolated fragments where its population is declining from habitat destruction.
Five birds previously considered Endangered endemic species are now classified as Critically Endangered by ICMBio. They are the Banded Cotinga, Red-billed Curassow, Black-hooded Antwren, Alagoas Tyrannulet, and the Orange-bellied Antwren. These are all Brazilian Atlantic forest species with declining populations.
Brazil’s Atlantic Forest is the most threatened habitat in the world because of Brazil’s ability to slice up almost every corner of habitat, leaving embarrassingly small forest island fragments to battle the climate with large exposed edges. Only seven percent of Brazil’s Atlantic forest remains intact. That statistic in itself is alarming, but barely touches the true reality. The Atlantic forest of Brazil is hardly a long coastal homogenous habitat. There are over 20 endemic areas down the Atlantic forest from Northeastern Brazil to Rio de Janeiro, each with distinct species. The majority of the fragments that remain are found in areas where farming was too difficult, which is usually hilly, rocky soils, or steeply inclined foothill forest. These types of environments do not hold the abundances and full diversity of their flat, lowland equivalents. It would be safe to say only two percent of the lowland Atlantic forest remains. And of all of it, it’s easy to say only half of that is within a sufficiently large enough area to withstand the exhaust fumes blowing through the edge for another hundred years.
As many ecology scientists have screamed from their hilltops — termite mounds of peer-reviewed publications — small exposed edge fragments of primary forest cannot survive the winds of time, eventually collapsing to a species-poor secondary forest, a habitat that no matter how hard we may try cannot keep certain specialist species alive.
The Great-billed Seed-finch is considered Vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN, but ICMBio considers this species to be Critically Endangered because of illegal captures for the national songbird demand. Illegal trade continues to be a high threat to specific species demanded by the pet market for their size, colors, talking ability, or beautiful song. I don’t know if this is a result of development, but unlike in most of Latin America, Brazil has a culture of capturing small birds for their singing ability, popular as a caged bird in private houses. Though Brazil is leaps and bounds beyond countries like Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia for illegal traffic laws and, more importantly, enforcement, there still remains a significant level of illegal trade, mostly for the national market. The local enforcement of Brazilian illegal trade laws in the Pantanal appears to have almost stopped the threat to the Hyacinth Macaw — a species ICMBio no longer considers threatened. But the caged bird trade has devastated the population of song birds like the Great-billed Seed-finch, and the biggest threat to the Grey-breasted Parakeet remains local illegal trade to own a parakeet as a pet.
Improved Brazilian ornithological research has led to the discovery of new species and well-justified species splits. ICMBio considers four Brazilian Endemic species, previously not considered threatened, as Endangered: the Cipo Cinclodes (2012) and the Bahian Mouse-colored Tapaculo (2014) are recently discovered species, and the Brazilian Golden-green Woodpecker and Pará Woodpecker (which was split from the Golden-green Woodpecker) are recent splits. There are rumors of research projects in the pipeline that will elevate other ICMBio threatened subspecies to species level.
ICMBio had improved national knowledge enough to downlist off the threatened species list 43 bird species it has classified as Vulnerable to extinction. But at the same time, and for the same improved-knowledge reasons, ICMBio uplisted another 30 species as Vulnerable, with a total of 85 species, 10 species less than the 95 listed by the IUCN.
In our very real sixth catastrophic extinction event, it is extremely important that a list of priorities concisely indicates the right species without fluff and out-of-date data that blurs the correct conservation path. Foundations and conservation-minded individuals need to be guided through the science to a clear list of top priorities that will be the most we can do to halt the extinction rate. When a species’ population is on the brink of extinction, this emergency needs to be flagged and in the public’s knowledge. If humanity, in our evermore domesticated state, decides to let another species slip into oblivion, then that is a decision we can take, based on our present adolescent values. But we must ensure that no more species attenuate out of existence without global awareness.
The disheveled Brazilian canary that needs to be heeded by the rest of the neotropics is the result of a country determined to join the big “developed” nations. When Brazil decides natural habitat is financially viable to develop, it is not simply peasants that move in and follow the latest market price agricultural trend — as we see in countries like Peru and Colombia. Brazil’s burgeoning development attacks habitats with full industrial, corporate, facelesss zeal. Corporate farming is supported by a sophisticated system of credit plans and profit/investment schematics to churn every single bit of habitat into one whale of monocrop destruction.
No canaries sing in this level of advanced habitat destruction, and without thoughtful planning by people who give a damn, all that will remain are practically worthless fragments of struggling forest that serve as guilt-relieving gifts — until they dry and turn to dust (give or take a hundred years). Is this coming for the rest of the Neotropics? The global development template says yes, this is how you do it, and as such we had best be prepared.