‘Nature is unraveling’: WWF reports alarming 68% plummet in wildlife populations

  • Published on September 13th, 2020

“The Living Planet Report 2020 is being published at a time of global upheaval, yet its key message is something that has not changed in decades: nature—our life-support system—is declining at a staggering rate.” That’s according to the 13th edition of a biennial report (pdf) from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), released Thursday in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which has heightened warnings about the dire consequences of humanity’s “absolute disrespect for animals and the environment,” in the words of world renowned conservationist Jane Goodall earlier this year.

The World Wide Fund for Nature on Thursday released its Living Planet Report 2020, the thirteenth edition of its biennial flagship publication. (Photo: Jonathan Caramanus/Green Resistance/WWF-UK)
The World Wide Fund for Nature on Thursday released its Living Planet Report 2020, the thirteenth edition of its biennial flagship publication. (Photo: Jonathan Caramanus/Green Resistance/WWF-UK)

By Jessica Corbett
Common Dreams

The Living Planet Index (LPI), managed by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) in partnership with WWF, tracks the abundance of 20,811 populations of 4,392 species across the globe. The latest version of WWF’s flagship publication reveals that the LPI “shows an average 68% decrease in population sizes of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish between 1970 and 2016.”

The LPI “is one of the most comprehensive measures of global biodiversity,” or the variety of life on Earth, Andrew Terry, ZSL’s director of conservation, explained in a statement Thursday. “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.”

Biodiversity loss and its drivers vary around the world, with the greatest losses recently recorded in tropical areas. WWF reports that average population declines by region were 94% in Latin America and the Caribbean, 65% in Africa, 45% in Asia-Pacific, 33% in North America, and 24% in Europe and Central Asia.

In each of those regions, changes in land and sea use, including habitat loss and degradation, had the most significant impact on wildlife populations, followed by species overexploitation, invasive species and disease, pollution, and climate change. The report explains that “globally, climate change has not been the most important driver of the loss of biodiversity to date, yet in coming decades it is projected to become as, or more, important than the other drivers.”

In Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean, human-caused climate change already affects wildlife populations more than pollution—and the impact isn’t one-way. “Loss of biodiversity can adversely affect climate—for example, deforestation increases the atmospheric abundance of carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas,” the report notes.

“The Living Planet Report 2020 underlines how humanity’s increasing destruction of nature is having catastrophic impacts not only on wildlife populations but also on human health and all aspects of our lives,” said WWF International director general Marco Lambertini, who argues for a “a deep cultural and systemic shift” in the report’s foreword.

“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,” he continued. “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.”

“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,” Lambertini added, echoing recent messages from Goodall and others. “Our own survival increasingly depends on it.”

Terry of ZSL similarly warned that “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. But we also know that conservation works and species can be brought back from the brink. With commitment, investment, and expertise, these trends can be reversed.”

WWF global chief scientist Rebecca Shaw agreed that “while the trends are alarming, there is reason to remain optimistic.” She pointed out that “young generations are becoming acutely aware of the link between planetary health and their own futures, and they are demanding action from our leaders. We must support them in their fight for a just and sustainable planet.”

In addition to the LPI—which, as WWF acknowledges, is just one of many indicators showing severe biodiversity declines in recent decades—the new report includes “pioneering biodiversity modeling” based on a paper from an initiative co-founded by WWF and over 40 partners that was published Thursday in the journal Nature.

“The Bending the Curve modeling provides invaluable evidence that if we are to have any hope of restoring nature to provide current and future generations of people with what they need, then world leaders must—in addition to conservation efforts—make our food system more sustainable and take deforestation—one of the main causes of wildlife population decline—out of supply chains,” said Lambertini.

The report comes ahead of 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly, which is supposed to start next week; a Summit on Biodiversity scheduled for September 30; and negotiations on a new global biodiversity agreement set for next year. WWF is urging world leaders to pursue a “New Deal” that puts nature on the path to recovery by 2030.

“With leaders gathering virtually for the U.N. General Assembly in a few days’ time, this research can help us secure a New Deal for Nature and People which will be key to the long-term survival of wildlife, plant, and insect populations and the whole of nature, including humankind,” Lambertini added. “A New Deal has never been needed more.”

About the Author

Jessica Corbett is a staff writer for Common Dreams.

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