Promoting Justice through a Critical Examination of the IUCN Red List Index

Various publications have utilised IUCN Red List criteria to establish area-based conservation targets for species to persist (see for instance Strassburg et. al, 2020;  Mogg et al 2019). The project focuses on critically examining the Red List Index (RLI), which is renowned as the primary source for assessing the global extinction risk of species. While the RLI offers a wealth of information on species’ characteristics, threats, and conservation measures, it has faced scrutiny over the years. One major concern is its taxonomic bias, primarily assessing birds and mammals, potentially underrepresenting other species. Data gaps also hinder comprehensive assessments, leaving some species in danger unaccounted for. Moreover, the RLI focuses on individual species rather than broader ecosystem health or human impacts on biodiversity, necessitating a nuanced approach in conservation decision-making. Additionally, studies have revealed potential biases rooted in personal values and funding correlations, impacting assessments (Hayward. et. al., 2015). Assessors may also exhibit bias when they perceive a correlation between conservation funding and the conservation assessment of a species, leading to overly precautionary assessments. This bias may be symptomatic of the broader issue of conservation investment driving conservation research.

Another critical issue is that the RLI measures the change in extinction rates of species relative to 1964. This poses a fundamental question: what if, in 1964, most species had already gone extinct in Western countries (that had already been through industrialisation and urbanisation? Such an assumption could imply that priority areas for restoration, focused on biodiversity, will end up being just projected in the Global South (see, for instance, maps Fig 1 in Strassburg et al. 2020), potentially leading to an inequitable distribution of protected areas. It would be of scholarly interest to investigate the reasons behind the higher levels of biodiversity conservation rather than simply imposing land-use change for conservation purposes in the Global South.

Furthermore, biodiversity loss is attributable to climate change and/or resource exploitation (Wells & McShane, 2004; Talukder et al., 2021), which is primarily driven by the Global North (Hickel, 2020). An exclusive focus on species extinction, as exemplified by the RLI, without considering the underlying causal factors, shifts responsibility for biodiversity loss from the Global North to the Global South. This power imbalance often reinforces the legacies of colonialism; it places the responsibility to address root causes of biodiversity loss squarely on source countries that end up bearing the economic burden of trade restrictions and conservation initiatives (Hutchinson & Lappe-Osthege, 2023).

I will investigate the RLI’s mechanisms, assumptions, and implications for conservation prioritization through sensitivity analysis, ethnography and propose solutions to rectify its shortcomings, ultimately striving for more equitable and just conservation strategies. Importantly, I aim to address the underlying causes of biodiversity loss, including climate change and resource exploitation, often driven by the Global North. My research builds on prior work examining environmental sustainability indicators, conservation targets, and decolonial perspectives, offering a comprehensive exploration of the RLI’s complexities.