The world’s animal population is being decimated at an alarming rate according to a new report released by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Animal population decline reached a staggering 68% in numbers across mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles has been recorded – much of it due to human activity. The report argues that only a massive overhaul of the world’s economic systems and a deep cultural shift could reverse the damage. Nature, it says, is essentially ‘unraveling’.
The Living Planet Report, 2020 is the thirteenth edition of WWF’s biennial flagship publication. Using the The Living Planet Index (LPI), it tracks the abundance of almost 21,000 populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians around the world. Since 1970 to 2016, the global Living Planet Index shows an average 68% fall in monitored populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish. Among the worst hit were species in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as global freshwater habitats, declining on average, 94% and 84%, respectively.
Plants are not immune either, faring worse than many species. Thousands of plant varieties are at risk of being lost forever, particularly in the Tropics where nearly one in five (22%) are threatened with extinction. This along with modern methods of farming has huge implications for plant and soil diversity with the WWF pointing out that many of these plants are the source of traditional medicines. Some pharmaceuticals are also derived from plants and plants play a crucial role in water filtration in wetlands around the world.
The findings of the LPR tie in with many other studies that suggest we are causing catastrophic damage to biodiversity and animal population decline. In April, a study in the journal Science found that insect numbers had declined 9% per annum, with Earth losing a quarter of its insect numbers in the last 30 years.
Biodiversity is “The fruit of billions of years of evolution, shaped by natural processes and, increasingly, by the influence of humans. It forms the web of life of which we are an integral part and upon which we so fully depend. It also encompasses the variety of ecosystems such as those that occur in deserts, forests, wetlands, mountains, lakes, rivers, and agricultural landscapes. In each ecosystem, living creatures, including humans, form a community, interacting with one another and with the air, water, and soil around them.”
The Convention on Biological Diversity, CBD (2020)
In a statement, Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International said, “The Living Planet Report 2020 underlines how humanity’s increasing destruction of nature is having catastrophic impacts not only on wildlife populations but also on human health and all aspects of our lives. We can’t ignore the evidence – these serious declines in wildlife species populations are an indicator that nature is unraveling and that our planet is flashing red warning signs of systems failure. From the fish in our oceans and rivers to bees which play a crucial role in our agricultural production, the decline of wildlife affects directly nutrition, food security and the livelihoods of billions of people.”
Much of animal population decline is down to the manner humans are changing land use across the world – degradation, including deforestation, driven by how we as humanity produce food. Intensive farming practices have led not only to changing land use but to less biodiversity in plants and soil.
“The Living Planet Index is one of the most comprehensive measures of global biodiversity,” said Dr Andrew Terry, ZSL’s Director of Conservation. “An average decline of 68% in the past 50 years is catastrophic, and clear evidence of the damage human activity is doing to the natural world. If nothing changes, populations will undoubtedly continue to fall, driving wildlife to extinction and threatening the integrity of the ecosystems on which we all depend. But we also know that conservation works and species can be brought back from the brink. With commitment, investment and expertise, these trends can be reversed.”
Without a change of course, species loss will continue to plummet. Based on a paper, ‘Bending the curve of terrestrial biodiversity needs an integrated strategy,’ co-authored by WWF and more than 40 NGOs and academic institutions and published today in Nature, the modelling makes clear that stabilizing and reversing the loss of nature caused by humans’ destruction of natural habitats will only be possible if bolder, more ambitious conservation efforts are embraced and transformational changes made to the way we produce and consume food. Changes needed include making food production and trade more efficient and ecologically sustainable, reducing waste, and favouring healthier and more environmentally-friendly diets.