More than two-thirds of the Earth’s wildlife could be gone by 2020, just four years’ time, according to a new report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Zoological Society of London.
The report, part of the WWF’s latest bi-annual Living Planet Index, details the most comprehensive animal population analysis ever undertaken. It indicates that global populations of fish, mammals, birds and reptiles decreased by 58% between 1970 and 2012.
That means the world’s wildlife population is being lost at a rate of 2% per year, with losses on track to reach 67% by 2020!
What has caused the loss of wildlife?
The research found that the destruction of wild habitats, caused by over-exploitation of resources and climate change, was to blame. Increased demand for farming land and housing plots, has led to the destruction of large natural habitats. In fact, the majority of the Earth’s land area has now been impacted by humans, with just 15% protected for nature. The report also found that unsustainable hunting, such as trawler fishing, for food, also contributed to the loss of habitats.
Pollution is also a significant problem. Marine mammals, such as orcas and dolphins are being harmed by long-lived industrial pollutants. Vultures in southeast Asia have been decimated over the last 20 years, dying after eating the carcasses of cattle dosed with an anti-inflammatory drug. Amphibians have suffered one of the greatest declines of all animals due to a fungal disease thought to be spread around the world by the trade in frogs and newts.
WWF conservation scientist Martin Taylor told CNN:
This is definitely human impact, we’re in the sixth mass extinction. There’s only been five before this and we’re definitely in the sixth.
It’s because we’re using so much of the planet and we’re destroying so much of (these animals’) habitat.
What species are affected?
The report showed that many different habitats are affected, from mountains to forests to rivers and the world’s oceans. Among the species mentioned in the report are well-known endangered species such as elephants, whose numbers have fallen by a fifth in ten years.
Rivers and lakes are the hardest hit habitats, however, with animals populations down by 81% since 1970, due to excessive water extraction, pollution and dams.
A new geological era
The collapse of wildlife is, with climate change, the most striking sign of the Anthropocene, a proposed new geological era in which humans dominate the planet. Prof Johan Rockström, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, in a foreword for the report, said:
We are no longer a small world on a big planet. We are now a big world on a small planet, where we have reached a saturation point.
A mass extinction of this magnitude will threaten humanity directly. Humanity is completely dependent on nature for clean air and water, food and materials, as well as inspiration and happiness. Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF, said:
The richness and diversity of life on Earth is fundamental to the complex life systems that underpin it. Life supports life itself and we are part of the same equation. Lose biodiversity and the natural world and the life support systems, as we know them today, will collapse.
The report also warns that the losses of wildlife could even provoke conflicts:
Increased human pressure threatens the natural resources that humanity depends upon, increasing the risk of water and food insecurity and competition over natural resources.
What can be done?
Remarkably, however, some species are starting to recover, suggesting swift action could tackle the crisis. Tiger numbers are thought to be increasing and the giant panda has recently been removed from the list of endangered species.
WWF’s director of science, Mike Barrett, told the Guadian:
Stemming the overall losses of animals and habitats requires systemic change in how society consumes resources. People can choose to eat less meat, which is often fed on grain grown on deforested land, and businesses should ensure their supply chains, such as for timber, are sustainable.
You’d like to think that was a no-brainer in that if a business is consuming the raw materials for its products in a way that is not sustainable, then inevitably it will eventually put itself out of business. Politicians must also ensure all their policies – not just environmental ones – are sustainable.
The report is certainly a pretty shocking snapshot of where we are My hope though is that we don’t throw our hands up in despair – there is no time for despair, we have to crack on and act. I do remain convinced we can find our sustainable course through the Anthropocene, but the will has to be there to do it.
We can all make a positive difference with the choices we make. Please share your suggestions, on how to live more sustainably, in the comments below.
Featured image: Calle v H/Flickr