Comparative lists of species’ extinction risk are increasingly being used to prioritise conservation resources. Extinction risk is most rigorously assessed using quantitative data on species’ population trajectories, but in the absence of such data, assessments often rely on qualitative estimates based on expert opinion of species abundances, distributions and threats. For example, one-third of coral species are classified as threatened and another third as near threatened on the IUCN Red List, despite a lack of data at the population level for the vast majority of species. Since many taxa show a strong correlation between species traits and extinction risk, an alternate approach is to identify traits associated with extinction in other groups and apply them to the taxon of interest. Here, we examine whether life-history traits associated with stress tolerance, fecundity and habitat specialisation are correlated with Red List conservation status in reef corals. We found no relationship between conservation status and life-history traits, suggesting that either traits identified as important predictors of extinction risk in other taxa are not important in corals, or that conservation status does not accurately reflect species’ relative extinction risk. Therefore, using global-scale extinction risk assessments to inform conservation of coral reefs presents a high risk of ‘silent extinctions’ of undescribed species. We argue that the conservation status for the vast majority of coral species should be ‘data deficient’ and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, and that the status and trends of coral populations can only be reliably assessed at relatively small scales.