About 28% of the 138,000 species assessed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) for its survival watchlist are now at risk of vanishing in the wild forever, as the destructive impact of human activity on the natural world deepens.

Habitat loss, over-exploitation and illegal trade have hammered global wildlife populations for decades, and climate change is also now kicking in as a direct threat, the head of the IUCN's Red List Unit has said.

Trapped on island habitats made smaller by rising seas, Indonesia's Komodo dragons were listed as "endangered", in the updated Red List for Threatened Species, which also warned overfishing threatens nearly two-in-five sharks with extinction.

However the latest update also highlights the potential for restoration, with four commercially fished tuna species pulling back from a slide towards extinction after a decade of efforts to curb over-exploitation.

The most spectacular recovery was seen in the Atlantic bluefin tuna, which leapt from "endangered" across three categories to the safe zone of "least concern".

The species, a mainstay of high-end sushi in Japan, was last assessed in 2011.

"These Red List assessments demonstrate just how closely our lives and livelihoods are intertwined with biodiversity," IUCN Director General Bruno Oberle said in a statement.

'Clarion call'

A key message from the IUCN Congress, taking place in the French city of Marseille, is that disappearing species and the destruction of ecosystems are no less existential threats than global warming.

At the same time, climate change itself is casting a darker shadow than ever before on the futures of many species, particularly endemic animals and plants that live uniquely on small islands or in certain biodiversity hotspots.

Komodo dragons - the world's largest living lizards - are found only in the World Heritage-listed Komodo National Park and neighbouring Flores.

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The species "is increasingly threatened by the impacts of climate change" said the IUCN - rising sea levels are expected to shrink its tiny habitat at least 30% over the next 45 years.

Outside of protected areas, the fearsome throwbacks are also rapidly losing ground as humanity's footprint expands.

"The idea that these prehistoric animals have moved one step closer to extinction due in part to climate change is terrifying," said Andrew Terry, Conservation Director at the Zoological Society of London.

Their decline is a "clarion call for nature to be placed at the heart of all decision making" at crunch UN climate talks in Glasgow, he added.

'An alarming rate'

The most comprehensive survey of sharks and rays ever undertaken, meanwhile, revealed that 37% of 1,200 species evaluated are now classified as directly threatened with extinction, falling into one of three categories: "vulnerable," "endangered," or "critically endangered".

That's a third more species at risk than only seven years ago, said Simon Fraser University Professor Nicholas Dulvy, lead author of a study published on Monday underpinning the Red List assessment.

"The conservation status of the group as a whole continues to deteriorate, and overall risk of extinction is rising at an alarming rate," he said.

Five species of sawfish, whose serated snouts get tangled in cast off fishing gear, and the iconic shortfin mako shark are among those most threatened.

Chondrichthyan fish, a group made up mainly of sharks and rays, "are important to ecosystems, economies and cultures," said Sonja Fordham, president of Shark Advocates International and co-author of the upcoming study.

"By not sufficiently limiting catch, we're jeopardising ocean health and squandering opportunities for sustainable fishing, tourism, traditions and food security in the long term."

The Food and Agriculture Organization reports some 800,000 tonnes of sharks caught, either intentionally or opportunistically, each year, but research suggests the true figure is two to four times greater.

Conservation tracker

The IUCN has also officially launched its "green status", the first global standard for assessing species recovery and measuring conservation impacts.

"It makes the invisible work of conservation visible," Molly Grace, a professor at the University of Oxford and Green Status co-chair, said at a press conference on Saturday.

The new yardstick measures the extent to which species are depleted or recovered compared to their historical population levels, and assesses the effectiveness of past and potential future conservation actions.

Efforts to halt extensive declines in numbers and diversity of animals and plants have largely failed.

In 2019 the UN's biodiversity experts warned that a million species are on the brink of extinction - raising the spectre that the planet is on the verge of its sixth mass extinction event in 500 million years.

"The red list status shows that we're on the cusp of the sixth extinction event," said the IUCN's Head of Red List Unit Craig Hilton-Taylor.

"If the trends carry on going upward at that rate, we'll be facing a major crisis soon."

The situation in Ireland

Ireland has Red Lists for specific groups of species, and Professor Tasman Crowe, the chair of the National Biodiversity Forum in Ireland, says the situation for Irish wildlife is nuanced.

"For example, 14 species of moth are now considered extinct in Ireland because they have not been recorded in the last 50 years.8% of the remaining moths are threatened and 4% are near threatened or data-deficient."

However, he said there has been good news for Irish wildlife. "The terrestrial mammals list updated in 2019 indicates that the status of the red squirrel, Leisler's Bat and the otter has improved since the last assessment in 2009."

Professor Crowe echoed the soundings of the heads of the IUCN at their conference in Marseille in France today. He says with more conservation efforts, better results will be seen - as four species of commercially fished Tuna show signs of recovery due to countries enforcing more sustainable fishing quotas and successfully combating illegal fishing.

"So far we are only protecting 2.14% of our maritime areas," he said, adding that the aim for 2020 was 10%.

"We are lagging behind in the designation of marine protected area," he said, as the government has committed to a new goal of 30% by 2030.