WWF Reveals Wildlife Has Declined 60% in 40 Years

WWF assessed 4,000 species of birds, mammals, fish, and reptiles.

Oct. 31, 2018, 7:56 a.m.

'We're the first generation to know we are destroying our planet and the last one that can do anything about it'

WWF says there must be a dramatic re-think of the status quo, as conservationists can no longer afford to merely recommend “more of the same” nature reserves and programmes to save individual species.

WWF have warned that current efforts to protect nature are not working, with wildlife population sizes falling 60% globally since 1970.​

According to WWF, populations of black and white rhinos have declined by an average of 63% between 1980 and 2006, largely due to trade in their horns. Similarly, polar bear numbers are projected to decline by 30% by 2050 as climate change melts the sea ice they live on. The puffin population size in Europe is projected to decrease by up to 79% between 2000 and 2065. In the Indo-Pacific the whale shark population is estimated to have reduced by 63% over the last 75 years. The African grey parrot population in south-west Ghana decreased by 98% between 1992 and 2014 due to exploitation, habitat loss and degradation.

Efforts to preserve nature are way off what is required, and a “global deal” in the mould of the Paris climate agreement is needed to bring it back from the brink, a report has warned.

Populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish have fallen off a cliff – dropping by an average of 60 per cent in just over 40 years.

In their latest Living Planet Report, the environmental group singles out overexploitation of the planet’s resources and the food system specifically as the biggest issues that must be addressed.

“Right now the destruction of nature is seen as the price of development, and we cannot continue like that,” Tony Juniper, WWF’s executive director told The Independent.

Familiar British animals like puffins and hedgehogs joined more exotic species like elephants, rhinos and polar bears on the list of species that have dropped in numbers massively between 1970 and 2014 – the most recent year for which data is available.

The conclusions were based on information collected from 16,704 populations of 4,005 animal species, which declined an average of 60 per cent during this period.

These trends have been particularly pronounced in tropical regions and freshwater habitats. Just a quarter of the planet’s surface is free from human activity, and this is expected to shrink to a tenth by 2050.

This habitat loss, combined with poaching, pollution and climate change, have all contributed to a crisis that experts think can no longer be handled using conventional tactics.

“We are the first generation to know we are destroying our planet and the last one that can do anything about it,” said Tanya Steele, chief executive at WWF.

“The collapse of global wildlife populations is a warning sign that nature is dying. But instead of putting the world on life support, we’re using a sticking plaster.”

However, Professor Ken Norris, director of Science at Zoological Society of London, who helped compile the report said despite the shocking figures “all hope is not lost”.

“We have an opportunity to design a new path forward that allows us to co-exist sustainably with the wildlife we depend upon,” he said.

An explosion of human activity, including overfishing, deforestation and pesticide use, has been at the heart of many species’ declines.

However, the report warned that all economic activity depends on nature, with natural resources estimated to provide services worth $125 trillion (£97 trillion) every year.

To preserve this value for future generations, WWF called for a game-changing commitment backed by governments and businesses around the world to preserve the Earth’s biodiversity.

“We need a new international agreement, a new global deal for nature, to enable countries to get at the root causes of this,” said Mr Juniper.

Though the suggestion has echoes of the Paris agreement put in place to limit global warming, Mr Juniper said such a solution for nature would have to be even more all-encompassing.

“The Paris accord would be part of the bigger deal because what we need to do now is recognise that the conservation of biodiversity, the reduction of carbon emission and the promotion of sustainable development alongside who we are going to produce enough food – these things are all fundamentally related to each other,” he said.

Besides bringing together all of these factors on a global level, Mr Juniper noted that there is a role for individual action as well, singling out changing attitudes to food as a key strategy.

“The biggest single thing most of us can do is cut down our meat consumption,” he said.

According to VOX, the Earth of the near future will be warmer, with higher seas and stronger storms. And, as we’re learning, it will also have far fewer species of animals.

Today, we have new data that paints a bleak picture of what’s happening to the animal kingdom right now. On Tuesday, WWF, the international wildlife conservation nonprofit, released its biennial Living Planet Report, a global assessment of the health of animal populations all over the world. Here’s the topline finding: The average vertebrate (birds, fish, mammals, amphibians) population has declined 60 percent since 1970.

“The astonishing decline in wildlife population ... is a grim reminder and perhaps the ultimate indicator of the pressure we exert on the planet,” Marco Lambertini, the director general of the WWF, wrote in the introduction to the report. All these changes have taken place within just two generations.

WWF Living Planet Report

But to be clear, that eye-popping figure — a 60 percent decline in average populations — is not the same as saying the world has lost 60 percent of its animals.

As science writer Tom Chivers stresses on Twitter, you can have two animal populations, one with 10,000 members and one with 10. If the population of 10 loses five members, that’s a drop of 50 percent. The population of 10,000 would need to lose 5,000 to record the same drop.

The WWF survey is based on data on 16,704 populations of vertebrates, representing 4,000 species. (A population is the portion of a species confined to a particular geographic area. The grizzlies in Yellowstone National Park, for instance, are a different population from the grizzlies up in Canada.)

Regardless, the picture isn’t pretty.

If you zoom in on particular ecosystems, like freshwater streams, lakes, and rivers, you see even more frightening drops. The average freshwater vertebrate species population, like freshwater fish and frogs, has seen an 86 percent drop since 1970.

Central and South America — which the WWF report dubs the “neotropics” and which are home to the largest tropical rainforest on the planet — have seen average vertebrate population declines of 89 percent, the most dramatic drop of any regions assessed.

WWF Living Planet Report

And there’s a bigger global story here that we must reckon with: Humans are a small part of the living world, yet we have a such an outsize impact on it. The WWF report stresses that wildlife faces multiple threats — climate change, habitat loss, pollution, hunting, and invasive species — all which trace back to us and our insatiable consumption patterns.

The WWF suggests the world needs a goal to mobilize behind, like how the Paris climate agreement is an effort to avoid 2 degrees Celsius of global warming. What’s clear is that the status quo isn’t working.

“Despite numerous international scientific studies and policy agreements confirming that the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity is a global priority, worldwide trends in biodiversity continue to decline,” the report states.

A baby monkey is cuddled by its mother to keep warm in subzero temperatures during a fresh snowfall in Tangmarg, India. Tauseef Mustafa/AFP/Getty Images

The world is losing biodiversity, and fast. If you take stock of all the studies that point to the fact that we’re living in an age of mass extinction, perhaps even the sixth mass extinction, it can all feel overwhelming.

It’s not just the vertebrates.

As a recent study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences outlines, between 1976 and 2013, the number of invertebrates (like insects, spiders, and centipedes) in Puerto Rico’s rainforest caught in survey nets plummeted by a factor of four to eight. When measured by the number caught in sticky traps, invertebrates declined by a factor of 60.

A 2017 study in Germany noted a 75 percent decline in flying insects over three decades. “The widespread insect biomass decline is alarming,” the authors wrote, “ever more so as all traps were placed in protected areas that are meant to preserve ecosystem functions and biodiversity.”

Mammals, the branch of the animal kingdom to which we belong, are also in peril, as another study, also published in PNAS in October, illustrates. More than 300 mammal species have been wiped out since humans overran the world after the last ice age (and an additional 25 percent of all mammals alive today are threatened with extinction). The study asks a simple question: How many years would it take for evolution to naturally replace all the species that have died as a result of humans?

Their answer: 3 million to 7 million years. Science writer Ed Yong points out “that’s at least 10 times as long as we have even existed as a species.”

The past few decades have seen a massive die-off of amphibians, which scientists fear are some of the animals most vulnerable to losses in a rapidly changing world. That may be because amphibians need healthy aquatic and terrestrial environments to thrive. Change just one enough and species suffer.

In 2010, a survey of 25,780 species of vertebrates found that 41 percent of the amphibians were threatened with extinction. “On a per-species basis, amphibians are in an especially dire situation, suffering the double jeopardy of exceptionally high levels of threat coupled with low levels of conservation effort,” the study noted. Since just 1970, 200 species of frog have perished.

It’s important to take stock of what we lose when we lose species. A 2017 report in Science Advances found that around 60 percent of primate species are threatened with extinction — all due to human activity.

The report found every member of the primate family Hominidae (great apes, which includes gorillas and chimpanzees) is endangered or critically threatened (except for us). Around 87 percent of Indriidae (larger lemurs) are similarly endangered or threatened.

Think of what that means: Primates are our closest relatives on Earth. If we can understand them better, we can understand ourselves. Here’s how Carl Zimmer at the New York Times explains it:

The first primates evolved roughly 80 million years ago, and then split into the living lineages over millions of years. By comparing our biology to those of other primates, we have learned about the evolution of our brains, our vision and our vulnerability to diseases.

But don’t necessarily consider primate losses to be more important, or painful, than insect losses. Insects and other arthropods form a hugely important foundation in many ecosystems’ animal food webs. They also are the world’s pollinators, ensuring that plants produce new seeds and new generations. Without the foundation of insects, the ecosystem collapses.

Earlier this year, researchers tried to estimate a weight for all of life on Earth. It was a fun exercise, putting humanity’s relative small weight on Earth in dramatic contrast to the weight of all the other forms of life. There’s an estimated 550 gigatons’ worth of carbon of life in the world. And all humans weigh just 0.06 gigatons.

If every person on the planet were to step on one side of a giant balance scale and all the bacteria on Earth were placed on the other side, we’d shoot violently upward. That’s because all the bacteria on Earth combined are about 1,166 times more massive than all the humans.

The authors of the weight estimate were also sure to calculate what was missing from their figures. They estimated that the mass of wild land mammals is seven times lower than it was before humans arrived. Similarly, marine mammals, including whales, are a fifth of the weight they used to be because we’ve hunted so many to near-extinction.

Although plants are still the dominant form of life on Earth, the scientists suspect there used to be approximately twice as many of them — before humanity started clearing forests to make way for agriculture and civilization. Animals are going extinct 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than you’d expect if no humans lived on Earth.

With so much devastating and widespread loss, it’s hard to say where we should focus our attention — other than just working to stem the progression of climate change. In Science, Jonathan Baillie, the chief scientist at the National Geographic Society, and Ya-Ping Zhang, the vice president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, argued that half of all land should be protected for wildlife by 2050, to give plants and animals a chance to thrive.

This is a lofty goal. But we’ve taken so much from wildlife. We need to think more about how to stop taking environments away from plants and animals. “Simply put,” they write in Science, “there is finite space and energy on the planet, and we must decide how much of it we’re willing to share.”

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