IUCN Status


Does it matter if a species is ‘critically endangered’ or ‘vulnerable’? Who examines its conservation status and how? If its conservation status changes over time, what does that indicate? Why are some species rare but have a relatively ‘stable’ status while others are data deficient?

Some of these questions have been addressed in the internationally accepted (and freely available) IUCN Red Data List (http://www.iucnredlist.org) which conducts robust scientific evaluation of global flora and fauna, and classifies them into different conservation categories with the help of conservation scientists who synthesize all available information. The primary aim of this List is to assess the extinction risk of a particular species at the global scale so that wildlife researchers, managers and policy makers can prioritize conservation at finer scales.

The self-explanatory figure on the left [1] neatly explains the Red List structure. The officially ‘extinct’ species are a constant reminder of the fate that awaits species that are ‘critically endangered’, ‘endangered’ or ‘vulnerable’, if adequate conservation measures are not taken. While some evaluated species may be placed in reasonably safe zones, that is, ‘near threatened’ or ‘least concern’, a large number of newly described species are also classified as ‘data deficient’ owing to dearth of up-to-date information. This also highlights the importance of scientific research in conservation.

During my travels, I have had the privilege of observing many species facing significant conservation threats and declining at rapid rates. In my own lifetime, I have noticed how, for example, vulture populations have spiraled. Tools such as the IUCN Red List offer scientific validation for what one has observed and also brings to fore trends one may have failed to notice over the years. I present below a representational list of Indian wildlife that is covered by the Red List.


A taxon is said to be critically endangered when it is ‘facing extremely high [emphasis added] risk of extinction in the wild’. India has around 132 species of plants and animals listed as Critically Endangered [2]

The Red-headed Vulture (Sacrogyps calvus) moved swiftly from being a low priority species in 2004 to a critically endangered species in 2009. While most people believed that these scavenging birds would never run out of food, we failed to identify emerging threats such as the veterinary drug diclofenac that resulted in poisoning of large numbers of vultures feeding on animal carcasses all over the country. At present, four out of nine species of vultures found in India are listed as Critically Endangered.

Location: Corbett Tiger Reserve | Uttarakhand

The White-rumped Vulture(Gyps bengalensis) has suffered the same fate as other vulture species. There has been a dramatic decline (close to 95%) in vulture populations in Asia. These majestic giants that once cruised over rural, semi-urban and urban habitats are hardly visible now and most are restricted to few pockets in the country.

Location: Kuno Wild Life Sanctuary | Madhya Pradesh

The Indian Vulture (a.k.a the Long-billed Vulture, Gyps indicus) is found in natural as well as human-modified landscapes. It feeds mostly on carrion and is often found feeding alongside the white-rumped vulture. It prefers rocky outcrops and cliffs for nesting. There is still significant lack of awareness among the locals about the ill-effects of diclofenac despite the efforts to educate them. It might also be because diclofenac is a cheap, effective and easily accessible drug that it is widely used. Recently, meloxicam has been tried, tested and proposed as an alternative to diclofenac.

Location: Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve | Madhya Pradesh

The Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) is a large crocodilian so named because of the knob-like projection at the tip of its snout which resembles a ‘ghara’ (i.e. earthern pot). Male gharials can grow up to 5-6 metres long and not known to attack humans. Their diet consists mainly of fish – their slender jaws are not adapted to large prey. It is believed that not more than 300 breeding individuals survive in the wild today. Their numbers are dwindling owing to habitat loss, loss of prey and poaching for skin. Sand mining is one of the biggest threats to these beautiful reptiles as gharials require sand banks to lay their eggs. Another emerging threat is agricultural expansion on river banks in the drier parts of the country like Rajasthan, especially in gharial strongholds like the Chambal valley.

Location: Corbett Tiger Reserve | Uttarakhand

The Pseudophilautus amboli (previously known as Philautus amboliis the frog that got me interested in amphibians in early 2002. A decade ago, I visited the forests of Amboli in Maharashtra and found these guys perched expectantly in the thickets. They were particularly abundant in the bushes close to street lamps which attracted a host of prey items such as moths and insects. I was surprised and sorry to learn that this species had not been described in the scientific literature in all those years. This triggered my interest in documenting as many species of frogs as I could in order to create a database of frogs of the Indian subcontinent. Found only in 100 sq.km area in the Northern Western Ghats, the future of this tiny bush frog is uncertain owing to rapid urbanization and mass tourism.

Location: Amboli Ghat | Maharashtra

The Raorchestes ponmudi is a muscular bush frog that exhibits interesting behavior depending on its micro-habitat. In Wayanad, I have seen it croaking from small bushes at waist-height whereas in the Anamalai hills I have seen it curled up inside dry leaves on trees, over ten metres above the ground. This frog is endemic [3] to a small region in the Western Ghats and faces threat from habitat loss and fragmentation due to expanding tea plantations.

Location: Wayanad | Kerala

I remember falling in love with the Malabar Gliding Frog in Amboli, Maharashtra almost a decade back and wondered if there were other equally beautiful gliding frogs in our country. When I skimmed through scientific papers, I came across a species of gliding frog in the Western Ghats that I had yet to see. I set my heart on finding the Rhacophorus pseudomalabaricus – a frog similar to the Malabar Gliding Frog but much smaller with insanely gorgeous stripe-pattern on the back that resembles the veins of a leaf. Restricted to a small area in the Western Ghats, this canopy species is threatened by forest conversion for agriculture and timber extraction.

Location: Anaimalai Hills | Tamil Nadu

A taxon considered to be ‘facing a very high [emphasis added] risk of extinction in the wild’. This list has seen many versions. Here are some incredibly beautiful species facing serious threats.

Named after the location it was first found in (also known as ‘type locality’), the elegant Pseudophilautus wynaadensis is a nocturnal species of frog found in bushes and shrubs in the evergreen forests. Its pinkish yellow colour and white nose tip are quite characteristic. Despite this, it is easy to confuse this species with two similar looking species – Pseudophilautus amboli and Pseudophilautus kani, both found in the Western Ghats. There is little research on frogs in India as compared to, let’s say, mammals but it is believed that this species can tolerate human disturbance to some extent. The threshold of its tolerance is unknown, however.

Location: Wayanad | Kerala

I was amazed when I first read about the Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis. Imagine a purple frog which looks completely different from any other frog in our country, having its closest relative in Seychelles! The purple frog, also referred to as the pig-nosed frog, was discovered in 2003 in the Western Ghats. The frog spends most of its time underground and surfaces only in the monsoons for a few weeks. Very little is known about this species but it is believed to be threatened by loss of forests.

Location: Anaimalai Hills | Tamil Nadu

I clearly remember the first time I encountered Raorchestes charius, in 2009. I was engrossed in a hunt for the day gecko, in an abandoned store room and heard this tiny thing call from a nearby shrub. I casually scanned the sparsely vegetated slope behind the room assuming smugly that locating this frog would be easy. I was grossly mistaken… Firstly, bush frogs are tiny and secondly, owing to their size, they prefer to perch at places where their sound can resonate better so as to attract more mates. This often leads one to believe that the call is coming from a different direction than the actual one. After a good deal of searching and reorienting myself, I finally spotted this guy sitting on a small mound and croaking away to glory! It is rather sad that many fascinating beauties like this will be no more if the country chooses to ‘grow’ at the same pace as the present one.

Location: Coorg | Karnataka

The majestic state animal of Tamil Nadu, the Nilgiri Tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius), is the only wild mountain goat remaining in the Western Ghats. Over the years, its range has reduced to only 10% of what it was historically. These goats prefer steep cliffs and high altitude grasslands but their population is declining owing to the spread of invasive exotic plants like the black wattle in pristine grasslands, as well as continued habitat loss.

Location: Anaimalai Hills | Tamil Nadu

The Hog Deer (Axis porcinus) is relatively short and stout as compared to the Chital. It is named so because of its hog-like appearance. It prefers moist grasslands and swampy areas. Poaching, competition with domestic livestock for grazing and land conversion are some of the main threats faced by this species.

Location: Kaziranga National Park | Assam

Probably the smallest of all Indian vultures, the Old World Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus) is easily distinguishable owing to the yellow face and wedge-shaped tail. While the juveniles can be dark, the adult plumage is white. The Egyptian Vulture is widely distributed but its population is believed to be on the decline and part of this can be attributed to the use of the veterinary drug diclofenac, the repercussions of which have already been explained above.

Location: Churu District | Rajasthan

A black monkey with a grey-white mane, the Lion-tailed Macaque (Macaca silenus), is a strange-looking species endemic to the Western Ghats. Though endangered, sustained conservation efforts by the Forest Department and the local NGOs have propelled the recovery of these amazing creatures that face increasing threat from habitat fragmentation.

Location: Anaimalai Hills | Tamil Nadu

When a taxon is considered to be ‘facing high [emphasis added] risk of extinction in the wild.’ As opposed to Critically Endangered species facing an EXTREMELY HIGH RISK and Endangered species facing a VERY HIGH RISK of extinction in the wild, Vulnerable is the third category in the THREATENED bracket.

The Swamp Francolin (Francolinus gularis) is a shy partridge found in the swamps of North and North-east India. This elegant bird is endemic to the Brahmaputra and Ganges basin but is capable of surviving in a matrix of human-modified landscapes (farmlands) and pristine habitats (grasslands). Among other threats, the swamp francolin is vulnerable to land conversion, grass harvesting and burning which cause disturbance to its habitat and nesting grounds.

Location: Kaziranga Tiger Reserve | Assam

The Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivaceais found in many parts of world including the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans and parts of the Carribean Sea. Despite its wide distribution, this species is struggling to survive because of various reasons including loss of nesting habitat, unsustainable harvest of eggs, and accidental capture in fishing nets, trawlers or propellers. The species requires a range of habitats to complete its complex life cycle which makes it vulnerable to anthropogenic disturbance. In India, these turtles are often attacked by free-ranging dogs when nesting on beaches, resulting in high mortality.

Location: Velas Beach | Maharashtra

The definition on the basis a species is categorized as Near Threatened is as follows: is close to qualifying for or is likely to qualify for a threatened category in the near future.

A characteristic common to most Wren Babblers is that they have a stubby tail. This one, however, has a slightly longer tail and hence the name Long-tailed Wren Babbler (a.k.a Naga Wren Babbler, Spelaeornis chocolatinus). Locally abundant in Nagaland and north Manipur, its population is believed to be declining due to shifting cultivation and logging. Its tolerance of semi-natural and secondary forests has not been examined and thus warrants a study.

Location: Nagaland

Not as colourful as the Malabar and Red-headed Trogon but fascinating to observe in the wild, the Ward’s Trogon (Harpactes wardi) one of my most favourite birds. To me, it is the setting in which one gets to see these birds that makes them special. This rather uncommon Trogon prefers to perch on moss-laden branches in dense broad-leaved forests. The males of the species are blazing red while the females are coquettish yellow and very pleasing to watch.

I remember during one of my trips to Eaglenest when we were walking through a beautiful dense patch of forest with tesias and warblers calling in the background. The path was covered with mist which would ocassionally clear up, revealing the thicket that lay in front of us. It was a cold moist afternoon and I was in half a mind to abandon the steep climb and turn back. Thoughts about the cosy tents and the hot water bag seduced me. Despite the distractions, I continued the walk, in part because the forest was equally alluring. Suddenly, I saw a blur of red approach me.

It swooshed past my ear and landed on a branch right behind me. I turned in its direction, startled and excited. Then I heard the characteristic wooo ooo ooo ooo. My heart skipped a beat, my eyes searched for the source of the sound. Some peering through the moss and there it was! A bright red Ward’s Trogon with its mischievous blue eyes carefully scrutinizing me. It obliged me with a couple of shots and disappeared into the foliage. My heart was still thudding…

Trogons may be quite sensitive to habitat changes and populations could dwindle if their forests are hacked down to make way for habitation or agriculture.

Location: Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary | Arunachal Pradesh

Other than the Narcondam Hornbill which is endangered and the Rufous-necked Hornbill which is Vulnerable, the other seven species are all categorized as low risk including the Malabar Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros coronatus). This species is found in the Western Ghats and in large parts of Central India, as well as Srilanka. Forest degradation is believed to be the prime threat to the Malabar Pied Hornbill.

Location: Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary | Karnataka

Taxa with the lowest probability of extinction that does not qualify for any other category. A species which is categorized as Least Concern may not be very commonly found or seen. Here are four species (a reptile, a mammal and two birds) which fall under the category of Least Concern, but are yet uncommon, in fact, very difficult to see in the wild due to various reasons. Listed below are species that are technically ‘not threatened’ but sightings are relatively rare…

The Sand Fish (Ophiomorus raithmai) is a slender diurnal skink which has evolved to lose the size of its limbs in order to be able to slither efficiently in the hot deserts of Rajasthan. I remember walking in the sand dunes once and seeing this thing slither towards me from beneath the sand. After a little while, it popped its head out like a snake and disappeared. I presume it dug itself deeper to hide, once it became aware of my presence. I have to admit, it is little scary if you don’t know what is moving beneath the sand! The conservation status of many such cryptic and less-known species remains poorly examined.

Location: Desert National Park | Rajasthan

The Yellow-bellied Weasel (Mustela kathiah) is a small nocturnal animal from the Himalayas which is known to prey on rodents. It is, therefore, kept as a pet in many parts of its range. Since the species is nocturnal, it is not very easy to sight and little is known about its ecology. It is presumed to be doing well in its range.

Location: Mishmi Hills | Arunachal Pradesh

Taken in 2009, this is probably only the second shot of this bird from India. Thanks to my friend Shashank Dalvi’s resolve to hunt for this mythical bird (not because it has a myth surrounding it, but only because it is heard more than it is seen), did we manage to spot the Gould’s Shortwing (Brachypteryx stellate). The community-managed forests in Nagaland have perhaps contributed to their persistence but a thorough assessment of their numbers has not been carried out thus far.

Location: Mishmi Hills | Nagaland

Two bird calls that I play often just to reminisce about the magical place that is Eaglenest, are of the Brownish Flanked Bush Warbler and the Hill Partridge (Arborophila torqueola). Though one can see the warbler fairly easily, it is the latter that is often heard as ‘background music’ in the forest but hardly ever sighted. Despite spending considerable time in Eaglenest in the past six years, I had seen this bird only once before, when I had accidentally flushed it from a bush. In April 2012, when I was guiding a photographer from Singapore, I got lucky and saw this handsome male foraging behind our campsite on a slope, barely 10 metres away from us. As mentioned earlier, it is not an endangered bird, but is surely a rare sight!

Location: Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary | Arunachal Pradesh

A taxon that has not yet been assessed. Following rare species have not been evaluated as of now, owing to several factors, but may perhaps be classified sooner or later.

The Sind Awl-headed Snake (Lytorhynchus paradoxus) was recently described in India by two of my good friends, Dr. Dharmendra Khandal and Kedar Bhide. As of now, it is recorded from only two districts in Rajasthan. It is a beautiful snake with a snout that is longer than the lower jaw which enables it to burrow into fine sand. It strongly resembles the Glossy-bellied Racer but can be clearly distinguished by the shape of its snout and the way it coils up (forming number ‘eight’).

Location: Sikar District | Rajasthan

We found this extremely cute Persian Dwarf Sand Gecko (Tropiocolotes persicus euphorbiacola) cooling itself under a rock during our desert survey in 2007. I remember Dharmendra excitedly calling out to me when he first spotted it. I was guarding the Jeep carrying our equipment in a remote village in Rajasthan. I quickly rushed to the spot and was astounded to see this tiny gecko huddled safely in order to avoid the afternoon sun. This species had been sighted once before but not described in the scientific literature when we discovered it.

Location: Desert National Park | Rajasthan

Little is known about this lovely yellow and black-coloured snake named Dinodon gameii (a.k.a. Gammei’s Wolf Snake). This slender, shy and non-aggressive species was recently rediscovered after a hundred (or so) years, by my friend Viral Mistry. It is, in some ways, a symbol for all the mute unknown species that could disappear someday, without our knowledge.

Location: Eaglenest Widilfe Sanctuary | Arunachal Pradesh

The Desert Monitor (Varanus griseus) is restricted to the arid regions of India and can be distinguished by its round tail as compared to the pointed oval tail of the Bengal Monitor Lizard. There are yet so many things to be seen, discovered, understood in remote corners of India and this is one such gem that we found during a desert survey in 2007. The locals consider this harmless lizard to be highly venomous and most individuals are killed due to the misconception that their bite can prove to be fatal.

Location: Desert National Park | Rajasthan

First recorded from the historic Laungewala area in Rajasthan, this small lizard, the Toad-headed Agama (Bufoniceps laungwalansis, has a tendency to disappear into the sand when threatened. It has a peculiar habit of staying flat and immobile and then swiftly digging into the fine sand to bury itself. It is a sight to watch them disappear almost instantly right in front of your eyes! While the overall coloration of their body is drab yellow, many lizards acquire a blue tinge during courtship. The habitat of this curious agamid is increasingly being threatened by an invasive species of plant named Prosopis julifloraas well as mining.

Location: Desert National Park | Rajasthan

The Indian Fringe-toed Lizard (Acanthodactylus cantoris) is found in the northwestern part of India and prefers arid landscapes and sand dunes. It can move very fast (upto 20mph) when threatened or disturbed. Interestingly, this is one of the few lizards that can move its eyelids (isn’t that amazing!). It is not listed on the IUCN website as yet but was proposed to be listed during the Conservation Assessment and Management Plan Workshop in Coimbatore, in 1998.

Location: Desert National Park | Rajasthan

Also known as ribbon snake owing to its sleek structure, this diurnal Afro-Asian Sand Snake (Psammophis schokari) is very swift and has a peculiar habit of raising its head to scan the area around it. Again a species whose status has not been evaluated in the recent past but one that is vulnerable to threats such as habitat loss and land conversion.

Location: Desert National Park | Rajasthan

The Spiny-tailed Lizard (Uromastyx hardwickiiis a stout lizard with short limbs and a beautiful bluish spiny tail. Its local name is ‘Sanda’. These predominantly herbivorous lizards are killed in large numbers to extract fat stored in their tails, which is believed to relieve joint aches and act as aphrodisiac. Some people relish its meat as well.

Location: Desert National Park | Rajasthan

Found possibly only in four districts of Rajasthan – Churu, Sikar, Barmer and Nagor, according to Dr. Dharmendra Khandal, the Red-spotted Royal Snake (Spalerosophis arenarius) is a non-venomous and locally abundant snake that can grow up to 4 feet. A myth surrounding the snake (and propagated by snake charmers) is that it coils on the chest of a person who is asleep at night and sucks the breath out of its victim, thereby killing him instantly. People hack this snake to death the moment it is sighted because of misconceptions like these.

Location: Desert National Park | Rajasthan

A country as rich in wildlife as India also faces many conservation challenges. Outlined in the feature are some of the species that represent a gradient of extinction risk. It includes endangered, threatened and rare species, some of which have not yet been evaluated by popular tools like the IUCN Red Data List. Evaluating the present status of species is extremely important for conservation. While evaluation is crucial, it is also important to recognise that this is only the first step and we may still be far from securing a healthy population for posterity.

[1] All definitions and information from IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria ver 3.1. The information mentioned here is from the IUCN website –www.iucnredlist.org, accessed on 3rd Aug 2013.

[2] See http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-in-school/article3574577.ece

[3] Endemic species are those that are restricted to a particular region or locality and not found outside of it.

I would like to thank Ms. Saloni Bhatia for research assistance

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