We hear individual stories about environmental destruction almost every day. However grim each of them may be, the big picture painted by precise global statistics on wildlife decline greatly adds to the unease and creates an unprecedented sense of emergency around biodiversity loss.
In their latest Living Planet 2020 report, WWF revealed that global wildlife is facing catastrophic decline. More than 20,000 tracked populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish have decreased by 68% on average, over 46 years (1970-2016).
WWF created the report by analyzing these thousands of wildlife species on regular monitoring by conservation scientists. The result is an index value that tells us if populations are going up or down, but does not track the exact status of individual species or events such as extinction.
Not all ecosystems are equally affected. The worst-stricken biome title goes to freshwater habitats, which faced an 84% average population decline – equivalent to 4 percent per year since 1970.
The worst affected region is Latin America and the Caribbean, facing a drop of stunning 94 percent – due to multiple and complex threats to birds, reptiles, and amphibians – from climate change to habitat destruction for agriculture.
Not surprisingly, the main mechanisms behind the decline are driven by human activity, mainly land degradation and habitat destruction for food production. To illustrate this, we can look at the fact that during a similar time frame (since the 1960s), the resource-intensive global meat production faced a 6-fold increase, jumping from 50 million t per year to over 300 million t per year.
One of the planet’s most significant biodiversity hotspots – the Amazon rainforest – has faced unprecedented burnings during the last two years, mainly for agriculture land clearing connected to cattle and feed farming. The trend is now spreading throughout South America. According to Argentinian authorities, 95 percent of fires in the country is “the result of human intervention.”
Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International, stated that “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.
Lambertini also emphasized the need for nature protection in the contest of the current coronavirus crisis. “In the midst of a global pandemic, it is now more important than ever to take unprecedented and coordinated global action to halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity and wildlife populations across the globe by the end of the decade and protect our future health and livelihoods. Our own survival increasingly depends on it.”
Although conservation efforts have many success stories, we need a systemic change across various human activities to stop this grave trend. “Conservation actions alone wouldn’t be sufficient to bend the curve on biodiversity loss,” said Professor Dame Georgina M. Mace* of University College London. “It will require actions from other sectors, and here we show that the food system will be particularly important, both from the agricultural sector on the supply side, and consumers on the demand side,” she said.
The world’s most famous nature TV presenter Sir David Attenborough seems to share these sentiments. Recently, he has been in the spotlight because of his new documentary produced by Netflix. David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet is special – it is the first documentary in Attenborough’s long career that focuses on the extinction rather than just on the natural beauty and wonder. It is, as he puts it, “a witness statement.”
Despite the difficult topics covered in his film, Attenborough remains optimistic: “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 (…) 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.” Attenborough adds.
*On September 19, Dame Georgina Mace, a Professor of Biodiversity and Ecosystems at UCL and a very influential British ecologist and conservation scientists, died at the age of 67. She was a face behind the invention of the Red List of Threatened Species, and a premise of ‘natural capital.’
WWF International. (n.d.). Living Planet Report 2020. Living Planet Report 2020. https://livingplanet.panda.org/en-us/
Briggs, H. (2020, September 10). Wildlife in ‘catastrophic decline’, report warns. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-54091048
WWF living planet report 2020 reveals 68% drop in wildlife populations. (2020, September 10). EU Science Hub – European Commission. https://ec.europa.eu/jrc/en/science-update/wwf-living-planet-report-2020-reveals-68-drop-wildlife-populations
Ritchie, H., & Roser, M. (2019, November). Meat and dairy production. Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/meat-production
Costa, W. (2020, October 9). ‘Total destruction’: Why fires are tearing across South America. the Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/oct/09/a-continent-ablaze-why-fires-are-tearing-across-south-america
Voiland, A. (2019, December 19). Tracking Amazon deforestation from above. NASA Earth Observatory. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/145988/tracking-amazon-deforestation-from-above