The Earth’s wildlife populations have dropped by an average of 69% in under 50 years, according to a leading scientific assessment. This comes as humans continue deforestation, consume beyond the planet’s limits, and pollute on an industrial scale.
The world’s abundance of birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles are in freefall, declining on average by more than two-thirds between 1970 and 2018, according to the WWF and Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) biennial Living Planet Report. Two years ago, the figure stood at 68%, four years ago it was at 60%.
Many scientists believe we’re currently experiencing the sixth mass extinction and that it is being driven by human activity. 89 authors of the report are urging world leaders to reach an ambitious agreement at the Cop15 biodiversity summit in Canada this December and to slash carbon emissions to limit global heating to below 1.5C this decade to delay the destruction of nature.
The Living Planet Index combines global analysis of 32,000 populations of 5,230 animal species to measure changes in the abundance of wildlife across continents and taxa, producing a graph akin to a stock index of life on Earth.
Latin America and the Caribbean region has seen the steepest decline in average wildlife population size, with a 94% drop in 48 years. Tanya Steele, chief executive at WWF-UK, said: “This report tells us that the worst declines are in the Latin America region, home to the world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon. Deforestation rates there are accelerating, stripping this unique ecosystem not just of trees but of the wildlife that depends on them and of the Amazon’s ability to act as one of our greatest allies in the fight against climate change.”
Africa had the second largest fall at 66%, followed by Asia and the Pacific with 55% and North America at 20%. Europe and Central Asia saw an 18% fall.
“Despite the science, the catastrophic projections, the impassioned speeches and promises, the burning forests, submerged countries, record temperatures and displaced millions, world leaders continue to sit back and watch our world burn in front of our eyes,” said Steele. “The climate and nature crises, their fates entwined, are not some faraway threat our grandchildren will solve with still-to-be-discovered technology.”
She added: “We need our new prime minister to show the UK is serious about helping people, nature and the economy to thrive, by ensuring every promise for our world is kept. Falling short will be neither forgotten nor forgiven.”
Leading nature charities have accused Liz Truss of putting the economy before nature protection of the environment, and are concerned rare animals and plants could lose their protections when her promise of a “bonfire” of EU red tape happens later this year.
The report points out that not all countries have the same starting with nature decline and that the UK has only 50% of its biodiversity richness compared to the past, according to the biodiversity intactness index, making it one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world.
According to the report, land use change is still the most important driver of biodiversity loss across the planet. Mike Barrett, executive director of science and conservation at WWF-UK, said: “At a global level, primarily the declines we are seeing are driven by the loss and fragmentation of habitat driven by the global agricultural system and its expansion into intact habitat converting it to produce food.”
The researchers highlight the increased difficulty animals are having to move through terrestrial landscapes as they are blocked by infrastructure and farmland. Only 37% of rivers longer than 1,000km remain free-flowing throughout their entire length, while just 10% of the world’s protected areas on land are connected.
The authors also claim future declines are not inevitable and pinpoint the Himalayas, south-east Asia, the east coast of Australia, the Albertine Rift and the Amazon basin amongst priority areas.
The IUCN is also developing a standard to measure the conservation potential of an animal, known as its green status, which will allow researchers to plot a path to recovery for some of the one million species close to extinction on Earth. The Sumatran rhino, burrowing bettong and pink pigeon were all highlighted as species with good conservation potential in a study last year.
The head of the indicators and assessments unit at ZSL, Robin Freeman, said it was clear that humanity is causing significant environmental damage and urgent action is needed. “In order to see any bending of the curve of biodiversity loss … it’s not just about conservation it’s about changing production and consumption – and the only way that we are going to be able to legislate or call for that is to have these clear measurable targets that ask for recovery of abundance, reduction of extinction risk and the ceasing of extinctions at Cop15 in December.”