Wildlife population analysis shows 'terrifying' decline in numbers, says WWF director

The world’s wildlife populations have suffered a dramatic decline over the past five decades and urgent action is needed to reverse the losses, the World Wildlife Federation says in a new report.

Freshwater species among hardest-hit populations, seeing an 83% fall since 1970

This map produced by the Zoological Society of London shows the average declines in monitored wildlife populations across the globe over a 48-year period, starting in 1970. (Zoological Society of London)

The world's wildlife populations have suffered a "terrifying" decline over the past five decades and urgent action is needed to reverse the losses, the World Wildlife Federation said in a report published Thursday.

Global populations of monitored mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish plummeted by an average of 69 per cent from 1970 to 2018, according to findings published by the WWF with data from the Zoological Society of London.

"The message is clear and the lights are flashing red. Our most comprehensive report ever on the state of global vertebrate wildlife populations presents terrifying figures: a shocking two-thirds decline in the global Living Planet Index in less than 50 years," WWF director general Marco Lambertini said in the foreward of the Living Planet Report 2022.

The biggest declines globally were seen in freshwater species, with populations down by an average of 83 per cent. The report says habitat loss and barriers to migration routes are to blame for about half of the decline in migratory fish species.

The WWF says the index includes data on almost 32,000 monitored populations across 5,230 species of vertebrates.

Clearing forests to grow food

It says destruction of habitat, largely for energy and food production, is driving the decline in 195 countries across all continents.

"Eighty per cent of all the deforestation happening in the world are driven by the way we produce and consume food," Lambertini said.

A leatherback marine turtle swims at the Sydney Aquarium in this April 12, 2006, file photo. Global populations of monitored mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish plummeted by an average of 69 per cent from 1970 to 2018, according to the WWF. (Reuters)

However, the report also says, "if we're unable to limit (global) warming to 1.5°C, climate change is likely to become the dominant cause of biodiversity loss in the coming decades."

"Rising temperatures are already driving mass mortality events, as well as the first extinctions of entire species," it says.

Here is a breakdown of the findings from the Living Planet Index (LPI), per region:

  • Wildlife populations in biodiversity-rich regions such as Latin America and the Caribbean have fared worst, with an average decline of 94 per cent over the 48-year period studied.
  • Populations of monitored wildlife in Africa were seeing average declines of around 66 per cent.
  • In the Asia Pacific region, monitored wildlife vertebrae populations were down 55 per cent.
  • The Living Planet Index (LPI) showed that populations of species in North America declined by an average of 20 per cent.
  • The LPI for Europe and Central Asia shows an average population decline of 18 per cent.

While North America and Western Europe did not see such dramatic declines as other parts of the world, its biodiversity strength was eroded by the development of farmland long before the 1970s — and although Europe and Central Asia had the smallest decline of the regions, prior to 1970, "many species were already in a depleted state," according to the report.

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"Fortunately, some populations are recovering and this year's LPI shows more positive trends among bird and mammal populations. However, on average, the amphibian, reptile and freshwater fish populations are declining," the report says.

"Our research gives us a clear message: we're chipping away at the very foundations of life on Earth, the foundations of the life that we rely upon and urgent action is needed," said Robin Freeman of the Zoological Society of London and one of the report's authors.

The findings were published as Canada prepares to host the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

"This December at COP15 in Montreal is a unique once-in-a-decade opportunity to call upon governments to put nature and climate change at the heart of global decisions making," said Freeman.

"We're asking governments to make stronger commitments to goals and targets and to incorporate living planet index as a headline indicator to help reverse the trend of biodiversity loss," he said.


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