Humans have caused 69 per cent drop in wildlife populations in last 50 years – WWF

A white-backed woodpecker looking for food on cut logs, in Finland. (Credit: Keystone/Nature Picture Library/Jussi Murtosaari)

Climate change, habitat destruction and pollution are pushing the health of the Earth to the edge, the NGO warns ahead of a key biodiversity summit that campaigners hope will produce a Paris-like deal for nature.

Tens of thousands of birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish and mammals populations have declined by two thirds on average since 1970, according to a flagship report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) International released on Thursday.

Published every two years, the Living Planet Report analyses how environmental stressors impact wildlife population abundance and has come every time to the same conclusion: climate change, habitat destruction due to deforestation, overfishing, pollution and the introduction of invasive species – all majorly driven by human activity – are among the main culprits of the decline.

“This is yet again a confirmation [of] the way we are losing wildlife and biodiversity at an alarming and unprecedented rate,” Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF International, told reporters at a briefing.

Mark Wright, director of science at WWF’s United Kingdom branch added: “We have not taken our foot off the throat of nature, we have not given enough space to recover.”

The findings come two months before countries meet for the Biodiversity Cop15 in Montreal, Canada, to thrash out an overdue deal to protect nature between 2020 and 2030. After two years of stalled negotiations, countries seem to be on the path to agree to preserve at least 30 per cent of the Earth’s land and sea areas. However, they still have to iron out a few sticking points like financing for a deal to be possible.

The figures. WWF’s findings are based on a data set of some 32,000 monitored populations from 5,230 species between 1970 and 2018 provided by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). Referred to as the Living Planet Index, the metric tells how a group of members of a certain species in an area has changed in terms of size.

  • The most alarming figure, according to Andrew Terry, director of conservation and policy at ZSL, is an 83 per cent decline in global freshwater populations.

  • The worst hit region is Latin America, experiencing a 94 per cent average decrease in animal populations, despite being one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. Deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, one of the world's key havens of wildlife and commonly called the lungs of the planet, has been especially devastating in recent years, with 17 per cent of the forest already lost and another 17 per cent degraded. A study showed that a record area the size of London was wiped out in September for agribusiness.

  • Africa follows with a 66 per cent fall – a bleak picture for a continent where 70 per cent of the people depend on nature for their livelihoods, according to Alice Ruhweza, WWF’s regional director for Africa.

  • Climate change is also making the Earth inhabitable for certain species. Half of the world’s warm-water coral reefs have perished to the rise in water temperatures and the figure could go to 80 per cent if the 1.5ºC limit is breached and 99 per cent in a 2ºC scenario.

The big picture. For Lambertini, the “shocking” decline is not just about the consequences on the natural world itself. “It is about the consequences this loss is beginning to have on our lives, on our economy and our social stability and our well being in our health,” he said.

Dwindling fishing stocks put many communities at risk of being left without their traditional source of food and work while a decline of pollinators leads to lower crop yields. Places heavily dependent on wildlife tourism risk losing their source of revenue, not to mention numerous jobs.

Terry noted that the “balance of species” is key for ecosystems to remain resilient and continue to provide their services. He described the demise of a species or a population as taking out an individual block in the wall. “At which point does that wall collapse?” he said.

The fix. Despite the sobering message, the authors point out that nature has the capacity to bounce back quite quickly and governments, business and people could reverse the negative trend by ramping up conservation efforts and shifting to sustainable economies.

Wright points to the need to bridge a $60 to $100bn gap of what is needed in terms of conservation and restoration efforts and cited some encouraging recent examples, including Germany announcing last month it would increase its yearly spending on international conservation up to 1.5bn euros starting from 2025. WWF is also campaigning for countries to agree to shift $1.8 trillion in subsidies that contribute to degrading natural systems towards conservation.

Energy havoc. The disruption of energy markets by the war in Ukraine has prompted many countries to roll back on their energy transition plans and warm up again to dirty fossil fuels that were on their way out and that contribute significantly to biodiversity loss and climate change. “When there is a crisis, whether it is a pandemic or the war, the tendency is to take refuge into what we know, into the businesses as usual,” said Lambertini. “That's the biggest mistake we could make because now we know that that business model is a disastrous model for us.”

Wright added that political leaders should not only ask themselves where else to get the energy from but how to improve energy efficiency by for example retrofitting homes with proper insulation.

States will have to grapple with some of these highly political issues in Montreal as they gather from 7 to 19 december for the Biodiversity Cop15 at a time when international relations between leading powers are thwarted. Lambertini said: “Montreal can be the Paris-like agreement for nature, that sets clear direction on how to be a nature positive society that by the end of the decade begins to hold and reverse nature loss, in simple words, delivers more nature at the end of the decade.”