Threatened Species per Country: The Stories Behind the Statistics
In the 65th issue of the United Nations’ Statistical Yearbook, published last year by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, one can find a comprehensive list of the number of species identified as “threatened” in each of the world’s countries as of 2022 (“UNSD”, “United”). The purpose of the Yearbook is to “provide information for various bodies of the United Nations system as well as for other international organizations, governments and non-governmental organizations, national statistical, economic and social policy bodies, scientific and educational institutions, libraries and the public” (“UNSD”). So, what does this collection of numbers reveal about the state of the global environment?
Perhaps most obviously, it demonstrates that the term “global environment” is, in many ways, a misnomer. Environmental conditions vary widely from region to region and from nation to nation, depending on forces both anthropogenic and natural, and so the number of threatened species per country ranges from just a handful (in Greenland, for example) to more than 3600 (in Madagascar) (“United”).
Thus, every nation must find a way to address its own unique environmental crises – but universal lessons can be drawn from each one: Commonalities found between countries at the high extreme of the data set might point out ecologically damaging policies, while commonalities found between those at the lower end of the set might highlight environmentally friendly practices.
It is widely known, for instance, that highly developed countries contribute disproportionately to issues such as excessive fossil fuel usage (Wijayal). Indeed, the United States was home to nearly 1880 threatened species as of 2022, a value well above the third quartile of the data in the Yearbook (for reference, see the boxplot below)(“United”). Thus, it is clear that economic growth is currently badly balanced with environmental protections – especially because “developed countries…have better ability rather than developing countries in particular to climate change adaption” (Wijayal). That potential has yet to be fully tapped.
It is also important to take other factors into account: Why, for example, are there so many threatened species in Madagascar, which is significantly smaller and less developed than the US? One major factor is that, because the nation “has been an island for tens of millions of years, many of the plants and animals that live there are found nowhere else, making it an extremely important biodiversity hotspot” (“Madagascar”). In addition, developing nations tend to be more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and other crises – despite the fact that those issues are largely the result of developed countries’ economic activities – due to limited resources (technology, finances, etc.) (Wijayal).
In the face of all this, one should keep in mind that the data shown above is strongly skewed to the right; countries like the United States are outliers, and the vast majority are in better condition when it comes to threatened species. This is not to say, however, that concern for those species is unwarranted: As long as the world’s developed countries fail to lead effectively in the fight against the environmental crisis, the current mass extinction will continue to accelerate.
“UNSD – Welcome to UNSD.” Unstats.un.org,
United Nations, data.un.org/_Docs/SYB/PDFs/SYB65_313_202209_Threatened%20Species.pdf. Accessed 8 Oct. 2023.
Wijayal, A S. “IOPscience.” IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science, IOP Publishing, 10 Mar. 2014, iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1755-1315/19/1/012008.
“Madagascar: A Biodiversity Hotspot.” Duke Lemur Center, 8 May 2021, lemur.duke.edu/8-20-ll1/#:~:text=Because%20Madagascar%20has%20been%20an,85%25%20of%20animals%20are%20endemic.