Populations of wild vertebrates are on track to fall 67 percent by 2020, according to a new report on the state of Earth’s ecosystems. It’s another stunning reminder of the scale of humanity’s impact on the planet, and a frightening glimpse into the realities of life in the Anthropocene.
This week, the World Wildlife Fund issued its Living Planet Report, the most comprehensive global analysis of wild animal populations. The thrust of the report is a “Living Planet Index” (LPI) which uses long-term population data to measure changes in biodiversity over time. This iteration includes data on more than 14,000 monitored populations of vertebrates, including mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles. Future versions of the report are expected to include insects and plants as well.
From 1970 to 2012, the latest LPI shows a 58 percent decline in monitored vertebrate populations, with an average annual decline of 2 percent per year. Terrestrial vertebrate populations have dwindled 38 percent since 1970, marine vertebrates are down 36 percent, and populations of freshwater aquatic vertebrates have shrunk by a staggering 81 percent. At the rate we’re going, the number of wild animals on Earth is set to fall by two thirds by 2020.
The animals being lost range from elephants to frogs to tuna to vultures; a diverse cadre of species and habitats that highlights the myriad ways in which a 7.3 billion-strong human population is stretching spaceship Earth beyond its safe operating limits. Not surprisingly, the most common threat to wild animals is habitat loss and degradation: deforestation, agriculture, development, energy extraction, and the removal of freshwater continue to transform our planet’s surface. Hunting and fishing pressure, pollution, invasive species, and disease also represent major threats to biodiversity.
While it’s easy to collapse into a puddle of despair in the face of so much terrible news, the report also emphasizes the power of doing something rather than nothing. Aggressive conservation policies have managed to bring back species on the brink, like black footed ferrets and Giant pandas. Restoration and sustainable development practices have revived some of the most degraded ecosystems in the world, from mangrove forests in West Africa to the Loess Plateau in central China.
But clearly, many more conservation actions and sustainable development policies are needed to safeguard what we’ve got left and undo some of the damage we’ve done. Otherwise, we risk opening the floodgates to a sixth mass extinction that’ll make Elon Musk’s offer to die on Mars seem downright fun.