Global Wildlife Declines

Global wildlife in nature is in ‘freefall’ due to human activity, with wildlife populations around the world declining by more than two thirds in less than 50 years, according to the world’s most comprehensive survey of the health of our planet. From elephants in central Africa and leatherback turtles in Costa Rica to Arctic skuas in Orkney and grey partridges in the UK, populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish have fallen an average of 68 per cent globally since 1970, the WWF Living Planet Index (LPI) 2020 reveals. 

Global Wildlife Declines

Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF, described the findings as ‘catastrophic’ and said these serious declines in wildlife species populations are ‘an indicator that nature is unravelling and that our planet is flashing red warning signs of systems failure’. The destruction of wild animal habitats by human actions is also fuelling a rise in global pandemics such as Covid-19, as these activities are bringing human populations closer to wildlife, scientists claim.

The Global Wildfire WWF has called for national laws to stop supply chains for food and other products from driving deforestation and destruction of wild areas, and for people to shift from meat and dairy to more ‘plant-based’ diets.

Some of the report’s most alarming findings include:

Global Wildlife populations in Latin America and the Caribbean have declined 94 per cent – the largest drop anywhere in the world. African elephants declined by 98 per cent between 1985 and 2010 due to an increase in poaching in the early 1980s. In the UK, populations of grey partridge have declined by 85 per cent and populations of Arctic Skua in Orkney have declined by 62 per cent.

Population numbers of eastern lowland gorillas in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, DRC saw a 87 per cent decline between 1994 and 2015, mostly due to illegal hunting. Freshwater species populations have seen a steep decline of 84 per cent including the critically endangered Chinese sturgeon in the Yangtze river, down 97 per cent. 

Authors of the report tracked the fortunes of almost 21,000 populations of over 4,000 vertebrate species to create the new index.

The 68 percent figure reflects the average proportional change in population sizes – not the number of individual animals lost. 

The biggest driver of wildlife losses is changes to land, sea and water use by human activities such as unsustainable agriculture, logging, and development.

Global Wildlife also faces over-exploitation, such as over-fishing, threats from invasive species and diseases, pollution and, increasingly, climate change.

Lambertini said humanity’s increasing destruction of nature is having ‘catastrophic impacts’ on wildlife populations and human health. 

‘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,’ he said.  

The WWF is calling for urgent action to reverse the trend by 2030, but warned that this won’t be easy, as bold conservation methods will be required, as well as moves to increase human food sustainability.  

Lambertini said it was more important now than ever to take coordinated global action to halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity and wildlife population within a decade. 

Taking these actions will not only support wildlife but will help ‘protect our future health and livelihoods.’ He added: ‘Our own survival increasingly depends on it.’ 

British TV presenter and naturalist Sir David Attenborough said the ‘Anthropocene’ – the geological age during which human activity has come to the fore – could be the moment we achieve a balance with the natural world and become stewards of our planet.

‘Doing so will require systemic shifts in how we produce food, create energy, manage our oceans and use materials,’ he said.

‘But above all it will require a change in perspective. A change from viewing nature as something that’s optional or ‘nice to have’ to the single greatest ally we have in restoring balance to our world.’ 

The LPI report, which was compiled by Zoological Society of London (ZSL), shows the same factors lie behind the disappearance of animals and our rising vulnerability to deadly viruses.

These factors – all from human activities – include converting forests into farms or housing and the booming trade in wildlife. 

According to WWF Chief Executive, Tanya Steele, rapid damage is being wrought on the Earth by humanity, adding that ‘nature is being destroyed at a rate never seen before’. 

Steele said the rate is showing no signs of slowing and is causing problems across all habitat types and around the globe. As an example, she said overfishing was ‘wreaking havoc with marine life’.

Most of the threats to species come from changes in land and sea use, causing habitat loss and degredation, the report found. But overexploitation, invasive species, pollution and climate change all played a part.

Dr Andrew Terry, ZSL’s director of conservation, said: ‘The Living Planet Index is one of the most comprehensive measures of global biodiversity. 

‘An average decline of 68 per cent 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 conservation works and species can be brought back from the brink. With commitment, investment and expertise, these trends can be reversed.’

While conservation measures have helped species such as forest elephants in Ghana and tigers in Nepal, on their own they will not be enough to reverse the downward trends, WWF said. 

Some species populations declined by almost 100 per cent, including the African grey parrot of Southwest Ghana that saw a 99 per cent reduction from 1992 to 2014 due to trapping for the wild bird trade. 

Other examples of species decline include the eastern lowland gorilla. Numbers in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo plunged by 87 per cent from 1994 to 2015 due to illegal hunting. 

African elephant populations in the Selous-Mikumi ecosystem in Tanzania have declined by 86 per cent since 1976, primarily due to poaching. 

Wildlife populations in freshwater habitats have fallen by 84 per cent – the starkest drop in any biome, equivalent to four per cent a year since 1970.  Almost one in three freshwater species are threatened with extinction.

More than 3,700 freshwater populations were monitored for the report – including 944 species – and most declines were seen in amphibians, reptiles and fish across all regions of the world. 

One example is the spawning Chinese sturgeon in the Yangtze river, which declined by 97 per cent between 1982 and 2015 due to the damming of the waterway

When it comes to freshwater species – the bigger the size, the bigger the threat – according to the Global wildlife WWF report. 

It found that creatures with a larger body size such as sturgeon, river dolphins, otters and hippos were at the greatest risk of depopulation. 

Leatherback turtles saw a decline in two locations – an 84 per cent population drop in Costa Rica between 1995 and 2011 and a 78 per cent decline in Indonesia from 1993 to 2012.

Without further efforts to counteract habitat loss and degradation, global biodiversity will continue to vanish.

Changes needed include making food production and trade more efficient and ecologically sustainable, reducing waste and favouring healthier and more environmentally-friendly diets, according to researchers.

Implementing these measures together, rather than in isolation, will allow the world to more rapidly alleviate pressures on wildlife habitats – this is a programme dubbed ‘Bending the Curve’ by the WWF. 

Based on complex computer models, ‘Bending the Curve’ pulls together all the various solutions required to work in concert in order to not just stop but reverse species depopulation worldwide.

This includes ‘action wedges’ – measures required to reverse the trend of wild species population decline – such as increased conservation efforts, more sustainable production and more sustainable consumption. 

As part of the modelling, Dr David Leclere, of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), also also examined the future species population using a ‘business as usual’ path.

This showed that, without any changes, the depopulation shown in this Living Planet Index will continue at a pace. 

Implementing the changes recommended as part of the ‘Bending the Curve’ analysis will take time, but could see losses reverse over the next few decades.

‘Further irreversible biodiversity losses are likely – putting at risk the myriad ecosystem services that people depend on,’ said Leclere. 

Next week the UN General Assembly is expected to review progress made on a number of initiatives including the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

We must ‘make our food system more sustainable and take deforestation – one of the main causes of wildlife population decline – out of supply chains,’ said Dr Lambertini.

‘With leaders gathering virtually for the UN General Assembly in a few days’ time, this research can help us secure a New Deal for Nature and People which will be key to the long-term survival of wildlife, plant and insect populations and the whole of nature, including humankind.’

‘A New Deal has never been needed more,’ the study author said. 

Originally published by Daily Mail