Credit: WWF/ Vincent Kneefel

Populations of over 4,000 vertebrate species face a steep decline in less than half a century: WWF

The global conservation organisation calls for transformational change in food production and trade to help stem habitat loss and wildlife consumption to reverse the trend

WWF has launched its thirteenth biennial report, Living Planet Report 2020, which provides one of the most comprehensive overviews on wildlife abundance worldwide with the tracking of over 20,000 populations of over 4,000 vertebrate species on earth.

The report has found that the populations of these species; from mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles to fish, have suffered an average two-thirds decline in less than half a century, or around 68% between 1970 to 2016. (The percentage change in the index reflects the average proportional change in animal population sizes tracked over 46 years, not the number of individual animals lost)

“An average decline of 68% 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,” said Dr. Andrew Terry, Director of Conservation at the Zoological Society of London, which has contributed to the report’s index.

Credit: WWF

The report cites some critical cases of wildlife in Africa. It notes that the eastern lowland gorilla, whose numbers in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo have seen an estimated 87 per cent decline between 1994 and 2015, mostly due to illegal hunting.

The African grey parrot in southwest Ghana, meanwhile, had numbers fell by up to 99 per cent between 1992 and 2014 due to threats posed by trapping for the wild bird trade and habitat loss.

Also, wildlife populations found in freshwater habitats have suffered a decline of 84 per cent, the starkest average population decline in any biome, or equivalent to 4 per cent per year since 1970, the report notes. The spawning population of the Chinese sturgeon in China’s Yangtze river, for example, declined by 97 per cent between 1982 and 2015 due to the damming of the waterway.

Land-use change and the use and trade of wildlife are blamed for the loss.

Marco Lambertini, Director General, WWF International, said the report underlines how the increasing destruction of nature by humans is having catastrophic impacts not only on wildlife populations, but also on human health and all aspects of lives, as the drivers are the same destruction leading to pandemics like COVID-19.

“We can’t ignore the evidence, 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.

”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,” remarked Mr. Lambertini, adding that it is now more important than ever to take unprecedented and coordinated global action to halt and start to reverse the loss of biodiversity and wildlife populations across the globe by the end of the decade, as “own survival increasingly depends on it.”

Credit: WWF

Bending the curve

Based on a paper, “Bending the curve of terrestrial biodiversity needs an integrated strategy,” co-authored by WWF and more than 40 NGOs and academic institutions and published in Nature, the modelling presented makes clear that stabilizing and reversing the loss of nature will only be possible if bolder and more ambitious conservation efforts are embraced and transformational changes made to the way people produce and consume food.

Changes needed include making food production and trade more efficient and ecologically sustainable, reducing waste, and favouring healthier and more environmentally-friendly diets, the paper suggests.

The paper shows that implementing these measures together rather than in isolation will allow the world to more rapidly alleviate pressures on wildlife habitats, thereby reversing biodiversity trends from habitat loss decades earlier than strategies that allow habitat losses and then attempt to reverse them later on.

The modelling also indicates that if the world carries on with “business as usual”, rates of biodiversity loss seen since 1970 will continue over the coming years.

“These losses would at best take decades to reverse, and further irreversible biodiversity losses are likely, putting at risk the myriad ecosystem services that people depend on,” said David Leclère, lead author of the paper and Research Scholar at the International Institute of Applied System Analysis.

Credit: WWF

Sir David Attenborough’s essay, A Life on Our Planet

Curated by WWF

David Attenborough’s work includes iconic productions, from the ground-breaking Zoo Quest series to landmarks including Life on Earth, The Living Planet, Planet Earth and Our Planet. His latest contribution is A Life on Our Planet, a feature documentary which he describes as his ‘witness statement’. 

“I am quite literally from another age. I was born during the Holocene- the name given to the 10,000-year period of climatic stability that allowed humans to settle, farm and create civilisations.  

Those conditions fostered our unique minds, giving rise to international trade in ideas as well as goods, making us the globally-connected species we are today.

Multinational businesses, international co-operation and the striving for higher ideals are all possible because for millennia, on a global scale, nature has largely been predictable and stable. 

This stable natural world abounded with a wonderous array of plants and animals. As Charles Darwin famously revealed, all species have evolved over time to best exploit the conditions in which they live. He further realised that these conditions are not simply those of geography and climate but also their relationship to other life that lives alongside. 

From the delicate co-dependencies of bees and orchids to the dramatic connection between cheetah and gazelle….. all life on Earth is both product and contributor to its place in space and time. 

Whilst Darwin’s insights explain how this web came about and why the Holocene had such abundance, over 200 years later we are still only beginning to understand its interconnections and which of these connections are most vital. Yet we are breaking those connections at ever greater speed. 

Indeed whilst I am among a dwindling number of people who can say they were born in the Holocene, I will die in a quite different geological age. The Anthropocene -the Age when humans dominated the earth. The age when innumerable natural connections were broken.

In geological terms the Anthropocene epoch is signified by a change in what is laid down in the rocks. A clear dividing point where the markers of profound and global human impact can be identified. 

But in human terms we are yet to discover what the Anthropocene will mean. 

Whilst we have left the benign conditions of the Holocene it is not yet beyond us to create a new stable state. The Anthropocene could be the moment we achieve a balance with the rest of 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. 

Rather than long for the Holocene our best tactic may be to embrace the Anthropocene. To recognise that if we have become powerful enough to change the entire planet then we are powerful enough to moderate our impact- to work with nature rather than against it. 

The same unique brains and communication skills that fuelled the development of our civilisations now have access to technologies and institutions that allow all nations of the world to collaborate and cooperate should we choose to do so. 

Under the auspices of the United Nations, representatives will soon negotiate agreements setting out each nation’s role in tackling climate change, enabling sustainable development and restoring biodiversity. If these noble aims are to succeed in fostering a stable Anthropocene we must view ourselves as a global species and be willing to cooperate. 

That cooperation sometimes requires making allowances and coming to agreements. The time for pure national interests has passed, internationalism has to be our approach and in doing so bring about a greater equality between what nations take from the world and what they give back. The wealthier nations have taken a lot and the time has now come to give.”