Wildlife Populations Plummet by 68% in the Last 50 Years

Human activity is to blame, according to landmark WWF report.

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Eurasian beaver eating from a branch
Conservation efforts have helped save some species like the Eurasian beaver. CreativeNature_nl / Getty Images

Human activity has wiped out about two-thirds of the global wildlife population in just over four decades, according to a landmark study by the World Wildlife Fund.

The Living Planet Report 2020 assessed the data from 4,392 species and 20,811 populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish between 1970 and 2016.

They found that the populations have fallen on average by 68% with Latin American, the Caribbean, and Africa experiencing the greatest decline.

The main cause of the drops, according to the report, is habitat loss and degradation, including deforestation, as animals lose their grassland, savannah, forest and wetland habitats when humans clear land for agriculture, housing, roads, and development. Other important drivers include the overexploitation of species, climate change, and the introduction of alien species.

Humans have significantly altered 75% of the Earth’s ice-free land surface, according to the report. Human activity is the main reason for the species population decline.

“In the last 50 years our world has been transformed by an explosion in global trade, consumption and human population growth, as well as an enormous move towards urbanisation. Until 1970, humanity’s Ecological Footprint was smaller than the Earth’s rate of regeneration. To feed and fuel our 21st century lifestyles, we are overusing the Earth’s biocapacity by at least 56%,” the authors wrote.

They write that losing wildlife isn’t just a threat to the species, but is a much greater concern with ripples that touch many critical aspects of life.

“The loss of biodiversity is not only an environmental issue but a development, economic, global security, ethical and moral one,” the authors wrote. “It is also a self-preservation issue. Biodiversity plays a critical role in providing food, fibre, water, energy, medicines and other genetic materials; and is key to the regulation of our climate, water quality, pollution, pollination services, flood control and storm surges. In addition, nature underpins all dimensions of human health and contributes on non-material levels — inspiration and learning, physical and psychological experiences and shaping our identities — that are central in quality of life and cultural integrity.” 

Extinction May Be Preventable

Freshwater biodiversity is declining faster than oceans or forests, according to the report. Almost 90% of global wetlands have been lost since 1700 due to human activity, researchers estimate. The populations of freshwater mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish have declined by an average of 4% each year since 1970. Some of the greatest declines overall were seen in freshwater amphibians, reptiles, and fish.

“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. 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,” said Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International, in a statement

“In the midst of a global pandemic, 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, and protect our future health and livelihoods. Our own survival increasingly depends on it.” 

According to the WWF, this destruction in ecosystem threatens 1 million species — 500,000 animals and plants and 500,000 insects — with extinction over the coming decades to centuries.

But there is good news, they write.

"Many of these extinctions are preventable if we conserve and restore nature.”