Facebook Post Recycles Misleading Assessment of Vulnerable and Endangered Species

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Quick Take

Climate change and other human-caused factors continue to put many species at risk, according to conservation groups. But a social media post misleadingly claims polar bears, whales and koala populations are “recovered” or increasing. All three species remain “critically endangered” or “vulnerable,” the International Union for Conservation of Nature says.


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Humans are accelerating the extinction rate of other species through activities that interfere with their habitats and contribute to climate change, according to the Royal Society, the independent scientific academy of the U.K.

“The main direct causes of extinction are loss and degradation of habitats due to human use of land and sea; overexploitation of wild populations; and the impacts on populations and ecological communities of invasive alien species, pollution, and climate change,” the organization says.

These human activities continue to endanger vulnerable species such as whales and polar bears in particular, conservation groups say.

Yet a Facebook post, shared on Dec. 12 by an account called Climate Change is Crap, misleadingly claims the populations of polar bears, whales and koalas are going up or have “recovered.”

“You should get out more,” the post says, and claims, in part: “Polar bears have increased 400% in 45 yrs. Whales are nearly fully recovered. Extinctions are down 90% past century (IUCN). Koalas doing fine.”

The post is a screenshot of a 2019 tweet from Patrick Moore, a board member of the CO2 Coalition, a group that opposes mandates designed to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions.

Moore’s Twitter bio says he’s a founder of Greenpeace, but the activist environmental organization disputes this. “Patrick Moore has been a paid spokesman for a variety of polluting industries for more than 30 years,” Greenpeace says in a statement on its website.

Moore, in making his claim on Twitter, cited the IUCN — the International Union for Conservation of Nature — which is made up of government and private agencies and compiles data and analytics on the natural world.

But IUCN’s “red list” of species threatened with extinction has polar bears and several species of whales, as well as koalas, as being in various stages of concern.

Polar Bears Classified as ‘Vulnerable’

Contrary to Moore’s claim that the polar bear population has “increased 400%” in 45 years, IUCN classifies polar bears as “vulnerable,” meaning the species is considered to be threatened with global extinction.

That’s mainly because climate change is causing sea ice to melt, according to a 2020 report from IUCN’s Polar Bear Specialist Group. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists polar bears as threatened.

The population trend for polar bears is “unknown,” according to IUCN. It’s “expensive and difficult” to estimate the polar bear population, because the bears live in small numbers in remote areas and there’s little information on some groups, the IUCN website says.

“There is no evidence that global numbers of polar bears have increased,” Steven Amstrup, chief scientist at the nonprofit conservation group Polar Bears International, told us in an email on Dec. 17.

Though some IUCN projections show the polar bear population has increased in recent years, that’s because some “old estimates in the poorly documented areas may have been too low,” Amstrup said.

The polar bear populations in the areas with the most consistent sampling over long periods of time — the Beaufort Sea and the western and southern Hudson Bay — are all declining, he said.

A warming climate can actually help polar bears, but only temporarily, Amstrup said. In some areas where ice had been too thick for too long to provide good habitat and hunting conditions, some melting means there can be growth in those populations, he said. But as warming continues, “that improvement can only be transient.”

“The fact that some areas don’t yet show negative impacts of ice loss gives us hope we can halt global warming in time to save polar bears over much of their current range,” Amstrup said. But if temperatures don’t stop climbing, he said, there won’t be enough sea ice for the bears to survive. “After all, their habitat is literally melting as temperatures rise,” he noted.

“In the long run, it doesn’t really matter what the global population size is now,” Amstrup said. “When sea ice is not available for long enough, polar bears will not persist.”

Whale Populations ‘Critically Endangered’

Although Moore claims “whales are nearly fully recovered,” several species are endangered or critically endangered, according to conservation groups.

The North Atlantic right whale is “critically endangered,” meaning it is at one of the highest levels for threat of extinction, with just 200 to 250 mature individuals living in their Atlantic Ocean habitat, the IUCN reports.

The Marine Mammal Commission, an independent U.S. agency, lists several species of whales as endangered, including the North Atlantic and North Pacific right whales.

North Pacific right whales were “driven nearly to extinction” in the 19th century, and a subsequent recovery was derailed by illegal Soviet whaling in the 1960s, the Marine Mammal Commission says.

The International Whaling Commission, which is charged with policing the whaling industry, introduced protections for whales in the 1960s and in 1986 put in place a moratorium on commercial whaling. “The recovery of some populations from near-extinction is a major conservation success story, but this is certainly not the case for all, and some populations remain critically endangered,” the commission says on its website.

“Whaling has been replaced by other man-made hazards, such as bycatch, collision with ships, ocean noise, and other forms of habitat degradation, as the primary threats to cetaceans,” the whaling commission says.

Australia’s Koalas in ‘Serious Decline’

It may be Moore’s opinion that koalas are “doing fine,” but the IUCN lists koalas as “vulnerable.”

Koalas, which live in southeastern and eastern Australia, took a severe hit from Australian bushfires in 2019 to 2020, and a panel of experts recommended their status be moved to “endangered” from “vulnerable” in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, the Australian Associated Press reported in June.

Koala populations in New South Wales have declined by between 33% and 61% since 2001, and at least 6,400 were killed in the bushfires, AAP reported.

The Australian Koala Foundation says there are fewer than 100,000 koalas left in the wild. “Koalas are in serious decline suffering from the effects of habitat destruction, domestic dog attacks, bushfires and road accidents,” according to the foundation.

Extinctions ‘Accelerated’

As for the social media post’s misleading claim, “Extinctions are down 90% past century (IUCN),” the Royal Society offers a different view.

“Our best estimates suggest that extinction rates in the recent past have been running 100 or more times faster than in pre-human times, and that the pace of extinction has accelerated over the last few centuries. If this continues, the loss of species will soon amount to a large fraction of all species on the planet,” according to the Royal Society.

The IUCN reports “good news such as the downlisting (i.e. improvement) of a number of species on the IUCN Red List categories scale, due to conservation efforts.”

“The bad news, however, is that biodiversity is declining,” IUCN also reports. “Currently, there are more than 142,500 species on the IUCN Red List, with more than 40,000 species threatened with extinction, including 41% of amphibians, 37% of sharks and rays, 34% of conifers, 33% of reef building corals, 26% of mammals and 13% of birds.”

Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media. Our previous stories can be found here.

Sources

Amstrup, Steven. Chief scientist, Polar Bears International. Email toFactCheck.org. 17 Dec 2021.

Australian Associated Press. “Road to Extinction: Koalas Could Soon Be Listed as Endangered in Swathes of Eastern Australia.” The Guardian. 18 June 2021.

Australian Koala Foundation. The Koala — Endangered or Not? Accessed 20 Dec 2021.

Greenpeace. Greenpeace Statement On Patrick Moore. 6 Jul 2010.

Johnson, Christopher N. “Past and Future Decline and Extinction of Species.” The Royal Society. Accessed 21 Dec 2021.

International Union for Conservation of Nature. IUCN Red List. Accessed 19 Dec 2021.

International Union for Conservation of Nature. Polar Bear. Accessed 20 Dec 2021.

International Whaling Commission. Whales – an Introduction. Accessed 19 Dec 2021.

Marine Mammal Commission. Status of Marine Mammal Species and Populations. Accessed 19 Dec 2021.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. ECOS Environmental Conservation Online System. Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus). Accessed 20 Dec 2021.

Vongraven, Dag and Nick Lunn. IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group. 2020 Report. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Accessed 20 Dec 2021.

 

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