A new report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) warns that world wildlife populations could be reduced by a huge percentage due to human activity.
The data was released on Thursday and shows that just one-third of the animals that were alive 50 years ago could be left by 2020. The scientists behind the Living Planet Report 2016 blame the huge decrease on humans.
WWF report shows extent of wildlife losses
Researchers found that populations of birds, fish, amphibians, mammals and reptiles fell by 58% from 1970-2012. Over 14,000 populations taking in more than 3,700 species are included in the report.
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“Wildlife is disappearing within our lifetimes at an unprecedented rate,” said Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF International. “This is not just about the wonderful species we all love; biodiversity forms the foundation of healthy forests, rivers and oceans. Take away species, and these ecosystems will collapse along with the clean air, water, food and climate services that they provide us.”
The report claims that populations are particularly affected by habitat loss caused by unsustainable agriculture and logging, as well as human changes to freshwater environments. As things stand farmland covers around one-third of the Earth’s land surface, and 70% of water supplies are dedicated to agriculture.
Freshwater animals particularly hard hit
However, these are not the only threats to wildlife populations. They also have to confront other menaces such as climate change, pollution, species overexploitation, disease and the introduction of invasive species.
The report shows that animals living in freshwater ecosystems have suffered the most. Populations in these areas have declined by 81% from 1970-2012, with habitat loss the major culprit.
Freshwater habitats face a peculiar set of challenges that make them harder to protect. They are affected by pollution, dams, and other factors, as well as crossing national and international boundaries.
Despite the downbeat nature of the report, scientists say that there is still hope if action is taken quickly.
“Importantly, however, these are declines, they are not yet extinctions – and this should be a wake-up call to marshal efforts to promote the recovery of these populations,” said Ken Norris, director of science at the Zoological Society of London.
Action must be taken promptly to halt further losses
The most important factor in making efforts effective is coordination and a holistic approach. The WWF report offers a number of suggestions as to how we can modify the way that human populations interact with the world around us.
Scientists also suggest that the Paris climate agreement and similar deals provide hope for wildlife populations. Dealing with global warming with encouraging population recovery, say the researchers.
“The world is reaching a consensus regarding the direction we must take,” the report says. “Furthermore, we have never before had such an understanding of the scale of our impact on the planet, the way the key environmental systems interact or the way in which we can manage them.”
According to Mike Barrett of WWF-UK, the decline of wildlife populations cannot be shrugged off as something that doesn’t affect humans.
“For the first time since the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, we face a global mass extinction of wildlife,” said Barrett, director of science and policy at WWF-UK. “We ignore the decline of other species at our peril—for they are the barometer that reveals our impact on the world that sustains us.”
One species of particular concern is African elephants. Populations have declined from over 1.3 million in 1979 to as few as 400,000 today. This sort of rapid decline could occur among other species as well, showing that coordinated efforts are needed.