Assessing temporal changes in species extinction risk is necessary for measuring conservation success or failure and for directing conservation resources toward species or regions that would benefit most. Yet, there is no long-term picture of genuine change that allows one to associate species extinction risk trends with drivers of change or conservation actions. Through a review of 40 years of IUCN-related literature sources on species conservation status (e.g., action plans, red-data books), we assigned retrospective red-list categories to the world's carnivores and ungulates (2 groups with relatively long generation times) to examine how their extinction risk has changed since the 1970s. We then aggregated species' categories to calculate a global trend in their extinction risk over time. A decline in the conservation status of carnivores and ungulates was underway 40 years ago and has since accelerated. One quarter of all species (n = 498) moved one or more categories closer to extinction globally, while almost half of the species moved closer to extinction in Southeast Asia. The conservation status of some species improved (toward less threatened categories), but for each species that improved in status 8 deteriorated. The status of large-bodied species, particularly those above 100 kg (including many iconic taxa), deteriorated significantly more than small-bodied species (below 10 kg). The trends we found are likely related to geopolitical events (such as the collapse of Soviet Union), international regulations (such as CITES), shifting cultural values, and natural resource exploitation (e.g., in Southeast Asia). Retrospective assessments of global species extinction risk reduce the risk of a shifting baseline syndrome, which can affect decisions on the desirable conservation status of species. Such assessments can help conservationists identify which conservation policies and strategies are or are not helping safeguard biodiversity and thus can improve future strategies.