European hamsters are now critically endangered and could go extinct within 30 years without action to save them, conservationists have warned.
The rodents, a different species from hamsters commonly kept as pets, were once abundant across Europe and Russia but have suffered severe population declines across their range, leaving the species one step away from extinction.
The warning comes in the latest update of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List of Threatened Species, which also highlights a worsening situation for Madagascar’s lemurs.
A third of lemurs, which are found only in the African island nation, are now critically endangered – judged to be at the highest risk of extinction – and almost all species are under threat.
Among 13 species which have seen their conservation status worsen in the latest update to the Red List is Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur, the smallest primate in the world, which is now critically endangered.
It has suffered loss of its forest home to slash-and-burn agriculture and logging for charcoal and wood fuel.
The update also shows more than half of all primate species in the rest of Africa are under threat, including all 17 species of red colobus monkey, with hunting for bushmeat and the loss of their habitat among the major threats they face.
IUCN acting director-general Dr Grethel Aguilar said: ‘This IUCN Red List update exposes the true scale of threats faced by primates across Africa. It also shows that Homo sapiens needs to drastically change its relationship to other primates, and to nature as a whole.’
She went on: ‘At the heart of this crisis is a dire need for alternative, sustainable livelihoods to replace the current reliance on deforestation and unsustainable use of wildlife.
‘These findings really bring home the urgent need for an ambitious post-2020 biodiversity framework that drives effective conservation action.’
Some 120,372 species have now been assessed for the IUCN Red List, with 32,441 put into the three categories which means they are considered threatened with extinction – critically endangered, endangered, and vulnerable.
They include the world’s most expensive fungus, the caterpillar fungus, which is highly valued in traditional Chinese medicine and has been listed as vulnerable to extinction in the new update due to over-harvesting.
And the North Atlantic right whale has gone from endangered to critically endangered, with estimates of fewer than 250 whales left alive.
They are suffering entanglement with fishing gear, being hit by vessels, and lower reproduction rates, with climate change pushing the whales to areas where they are more likely to be harmed by human activity.
Lower reproduction rates are also driving the population declines in the European hamster, with mothers giving birth to just five or six pups a year compared with more than 20 in the 20th century, research shows.
It is not clear what is causing the fall in reproduction rates, but experts said the expansion of monoculture crops, industrial development, global warming and light pollution are being investigated as possible causes.
The rodent has vanished from three-quarters of its original habitat in Alsace, France, at least a third of its range in Germany, and from more than 75% of the area it was once found in Eastern Europe, the IUCN warned.
Dr Mikhail Rusin, an author of the new Red List assessment, said: ‘While conservation measures including hamster-friendly field management and reintroductions have slowed down the population decline in some areas, they have failed to reverse the trend.
‘In addition to these measures, more research into the various possible drivers of the European hamster’s disappearance is urgently needed to save it from extinction.’