WWF: Wildlife perishing at rate not seen for millions of years

WWF Tanzania

The WWF (World Wildlife Fund), whose Patron is the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, has released the Living Planet Report 2020, which states that globally, monitored population sizes of mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, and amphibians have fallen by an average of 68% in just over four decades.

Wildlife populations in Latin America and the Caribbean have fared worst, with an average decline of 94%. Global freshwater species have also been disproportionately impacted, declining 84% on average. The conversion of grassland, savannah, forest and wetland habitats, the overexploitation of wildlife, the introduction of non-native species and climate change are the key drivers of the drop.

WWF, Brazil
A farmer in São Paulo, Brazil. Photo: Adriano Gambarini / WWF-US

As an important indicator of planetary health, these drastic species population trends signal a fundamentally broken relationship between humans and the natural world, the consequences of which – as demonstrated by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic – can be catastrophic, the WFF said in a media release.

“This report reminds us that we destroy the planet at our peril – because it is our home. As humanity’s footprint expands into once-wild places, we’re devastating species populations. But we’re also exacerbating climate change and increasing the risk of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19. We cannot shield humanity from the impacts of environmental destruction. It’s time to restore our broken relationship with nature for the benefit of species and people alike,” says WWF-US President and CEO Carter Roberts.

The Living Planet Report 2020 assessed the population declines seen in more than 4,392 monitored species of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians between 1970 and 2016. The steep wildlife population decreases the Earth has seen in recent decades have not been seen for millions of years.

Human action

Human activity is the reason for the decline in species, the report found.

Humans have significantly altered a staggering 75% of the planet’s ice-free land surface.

The WWF states the ecosystem destruction now threatens some one million species – 500,000 animals and plants and 500,000 insects – with extinction in the coming decades and centuries. But while the report finds that nature is being “destroyed by us at a rate unprecedented in history”, experts say the declining trends can be halted and even reversed with urgent action, such as transforming how we produce and consume food, tackling climate change and conserving nature.

Experts say that freshwater biodiversity is declining fastest, with data showing that 85% of global wetlands have been lost since the Industrial Revolution.

The populations of freshwater mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fishes monitored have fallen by an average of 4% each year since 1970, the report found.

“The most dramatic decline was in freshwater,” said WWF Chief Scientist Rebecca Shaw. “You begin to see a picture of an unravelling of nature. That is alarming – and I think alarming, even by our own measures of alarming – we really thought with the efforts that were going on, that we would see change in the direction.

“But still, we’re seeing very distinct declines in freshwater ecosystems, largely because of the way we dam rivers and also because of the use of freshwater resources for producing food to feed a growing population of people worldwide,” she said.

Species decline

“To feed and fuel our 21st-century lifestyles, we are overusing the Earth’s biocapacity by at least 56%,” the report’s authors said.

Shaw told CNN that destroying wildlife spells disaster for humans.

“The main driver of species decline is the habitat destruction that comes from agriculture, expanding agricultural production, to produce food,” Shaw told CNN.

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