The global population of fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals has declined 60 percent since 1970, according to the WWF’s “Living Planet” report released Tuesday.
Unbridled consumption has decimated global wildlife, triggering a mass extinction and exhausted Earth’s capacity to accommodate humanity’s expanding appetites, the conservation group warned.
“The situation is really bad, and it keeps getting worse,” World Wildlife Fund International director general Marco Lambertini told AFP.
“The only good news is that we know exactly what is happening.”
The WWF and partners have tracked population changes in Earth’s animal species for decades. News from the latest “Living Planet” report, released Tuesday, is more grim than ever.
The new estimate of the massacre of wildlife is made in a major report produced by WWF and involving 59 scientists from across the globe. It finds that the vast and growing consumption of food and resources by the global population is destroying the web of life, billions of years in the making, upon which human society ultimately depends for clean air, water and everything else.
“We are sleepwalking towards the edge of a cliff” said Mike Barrett, executive director of science and conservation at WWF. “If there was a 60% decline in the human population, that would be equivalent to emptying North America, South America, Africa, Europe, China and Oceania. That is the scale of what we have done.”
“This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is,” he said. “This is actually now jeopardising the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.”
“We are rapidly running out of time,” said Prof Johan Rockström, a global sustainability expert at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. “Only by addressing both ecosystems and climate do we stand a chance of safeguarding a stable planet for humanity’s future on Earth.”
Many scientists believe the world has begun a sixth mass extinction, the first to be caused by a species – Homo sapiens. Other recent analyses have revealed that humankind has destroyed 83% of all mammals and half of plants since the dawn of civilisation and that, even if the destruction were to end now, it would take 5-7 million years for the natural world to recover.
The Living Planet Index, produced for WWF by the Zoological Society of London, uses data on 16,704 populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians, representing more than 4,000 species, to track the decline of wildlife. Between 1970 and 2014, the latest data available, populations fell by an average of 60%. Four years ago, the decline was 52%. The “shocking truth”, said Barrett, is that the wildlife crash is continuing unabated.
Wildlife and the ecosystems are vital to human life, said Prof Bob Watson, one of the world’s most eminent environmental scientists and currently chair of an intergovernmental panel on biodiversity that said in March that the destruction of nature is as dangerous as climate change.
“Nature contributes to human wellbeing culturally and spiritually, as well as through the critical production of food, clean water, and energy, and through regulating the Earth’s climate, pollution, pollination and floods,” he said. “The Living Planet report clearly demonstrates that human activities are destroying nature at an unacceptable rate, threatening the wellbeing of current and future generations.”
The biggest cause of wildlife losses is the destruction of natural habitats, much of it to create farmland. Three-quarters of all land on Earth is now significantly affected by human activities. Killing for food is the next biggest cause – 300 mammal species are being eaten into extinction – while the oceans are massively overfished, with more than half now being industrially fished
Chemical pollution is also significant: half the world’s killer whale populations are now doomed to die from PCB contamination. Global trade introduces invasive species and disease, with amphibians decimated by a fungal disease thought to be spread by the pet trade.
“It is a classic example of where the disappearance is the result of our own consumption, because the deforestation is being driven by ever expanding agriculture producing soy, which is being exported to countries including the UK to feed pigs and chickens,” he said. The UK itself has lost much of its wildlife, ranking 189th for biodiversity loss out of 218 nations in 2016.
The habitats suffering the greatest damage are rivers and lakes, where wildlife populations have fallen 83%, due to the enormous thirst of agriculture and the large number of dams. “Again there is this direct link between the food system and the depletion of wildlife,” said Barrett. Eating less meat is an essential part of reversing losses, he said.
The Living Planet Index has been criticised as being too broad a measure of wildlife losses and smoothing over crucial details. But all indicators, from extinction rates to intactness of ecosystems, show colossal losses. “They all tell you the same story,” said Barrett.
But Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF International, said the fundamental issue was consumption: “We can no longer ignore the impact of current unsustainable production models and wasteful lifestyles.”
The world’s nations are working towards a crunch meeting of the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity in 2020, when new commitments for the protection of nature will be made. “We need a new global deal for nature and people and we have this narrow window of less than two years to get it,” said Barrett. “This really is the last chance. We have to get it right this time.”
Tanya Steele, chief executive at WWF, said: “We are the first generation to know we are destroying our planet and the last one that can do anything about it.”
Here are key findings:
From 1970 to 2014, the number of animals with a backbone — birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals and fish — plummeted across the globe, on average, by about 60 percent.
For freshwater vertebrates, losses topped 80 percent. Geographically, South and Central America have been hit hardest, with 89 percent less wildlife in 2014 than in 1970.
The WWF Living Planet Index tracks more than 4,000 species spread across nearly 17,000 populations.
The index of extinction risk for five major groups — birds, mammals, amphibians, corals and an ancient family of plants called cycads — shows an accelerating slide towards oblivion.
Depending on which categories are included, the current rate at which species are going extinct is 100 to 1,000 times greater than only a few centuries ago, when human activity began to alter the planet’s biology and chemistry in earnest.
By definition, this means that Earth has entered a mass extinction event, only the sixth in half-a-billion years.
In 2009, scientists weighed the impact of humanity’s expanding appetites on nine processes — known as Earth systems — within nature. Each has a critical threshold, the upper limit of a “safe operating space” for our species.
The do-not-cross red line for climate change, for example, is global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), according to a new UN report.
So far, we have clearly breached two of these so-called planetary boundaries: species loss, and imbalances in Earth’s natural cycles of nitrogen and phosphorous (mainly due to fertiliser use).
For two others, climate and land degradation, we have one foot in the red zone. Ocean acidification and freshwater supply are not far behind. As for new chemical pollutants such as endocrine disruptors, heavy metals, and plastics, we simply don’t know yet how much is too much.
More generally, the marginal capacity of Earth’s ecosystems to renew themselves has been far outstripped by humanity’s ecological footprint, which has nearly tripled in 50 years.
Nearly 20 percent of the Amazon rainforest, the world’s largest, has disappeared in five decades. Tropical deforestation continues unabated, mainly to make way for soy beans, palm oil and cattle.
Globally, between 2000 and 2014, the world lost 920,000 square kilometres of intact or “minimally disturbed” forest, an area roughly the size of Pakistan or France and Germany combined. Satellite data shows the pace of that degradation picked up by 20 percent from 2014 to 2016, compared with the previous 15 years.
Since 1950, our species has extracted six billion tonnes of fish, crustaceans, clams, squids and other edible sea creatures. Despite the deployment of increasingly sophisticated fishing technologies, global catches — 80 percent by industrial fleets — peaked in 1996 and have been declining since.
Climate change and pollution have killed off half of the world’s shallow water coral reefs, which support more than a quarter of marine life. Even if humanity manages to cap global warming at 1.5C — which many scientists doubt is possible — coral mortality will likely be 70 to 90 percent.
Coastal mangrove forests, which protect against storm surges made worse by rising seas, have also declined by up to half over the last 50 years.