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WWF’s Living Planet Report Reveals Average Two-thirds Decline In Wildlife Populations Since 1970

According to WWF’s Living Planet Report 2020 released today, global populations* of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish have suffered an average two-thirds decline in less than half a century. The decline is due in large part to the very same environmental destruction which is contributing to the emergence of zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19.

Read Living Planet Report 2020

The Living Planet Index (LPI), provided by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), shows that factors believed to increase the planet’s vulnerability to pandemics - including land-use change and the use and trade of wildlife - were also some of the drivers behind the 68 per cent average decline in global vertebrate species populations between 1970 and 2016.

“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 Marco Lambertini, Director General, WWF International. 

“We can’t ignore the evidence – these serious declines in wildlife species populations are an indicator that nature is unravelling 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.”

He added: “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.”

The Living Planet Report 2020 presents a comprehensive overview of the state of our natural world through the LPI, which tracks trends in global wildlife abundance with contributions from more than 125 experts from around the world. It shows that the main cause of the dramatic decline in species populations on land observed in the LPI is habitat loss and degradation, including deforestation, and driven in particular by how we as humanity produce food.

The LPI, which tracked almost 21,000 populations of more than 4,000 vertebrate species between 1970 and 2016, shows that wildlife populations found in freshwater habitats have suffered a decline of 84 per cent - the starkest average population decline in any biome - equivalent to 4 per cent per year since 1970. 

“And worst off seem to be sturgeon species, also found in the Danube River, declared the most threatened group of species worldwide by the IUCN. Monitored populations have dramatically declined by 91% on average between 1970 and 2016, with the most commonly recorded threat being exploitation (55%), followed by habitat degradation and change (31%).3 Mega-fish such as Beluga sturgeon (Huso huso), that used to reach record lengths of 7m are particularly vulnerable. Of the 6 sturgeon species previously present in the Danube Basin, 2 are already considered extinct,” says Beate Striebel, WWF Sturgeon Initiative Lead Other endangered species captured in the LPI include the eastern lowland gorilla whose numbers in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo have seen an estimated 87 per cent decline between 1994 and 2015 mostly due to illegal hunting; [1] and the African grey parrot in southwest Ghana, whose numbers fell by up to 99 per cent between 1992 and 2014 due to threats posed by trapping for the wild bird trade and habitat loss [2].

“The Living Planet Index is one of the most comprehensive measures of global biodiversity,” said Dr Andrew Terry, ZSL’s Director of Conservation. “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. 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 Central and Eastern Europe’s (WWF-CEE) work to bring back the bison in Romania and save the Danube sturgeons from the brink of extinction are good examples of how working together with authorities, communities and NGOs, keystone species populations in the Danube-Carpathian Region could be stabilised with a view towards recovery so that these animals can play their full role again in the ecosystem. The fact that the biodiversity intactness index shows a slight positive trend for Europe means that nature restoration measures under the EU Birds and Habitats Directives are working and must be implemented with increased ambition.

Moreover, although CEE countries feature more wilderness areas than Western European countries, they are so small that they are not visible on the global wilderness map of the Living Planet Report. This shows how vulnerable and precious these last patches of wild nature are and how important it is to preserve them and the flora and fauna, such as large carnivores (bear, lynx, wolf), that depend on them. Some of these amazing wild landscapes feature substantial old-growth forests, a rarity in Europe, or such biodiversity hotspots as the Danube Delta and the Mura-Drava-Danube Biosphere Reserve which WWF-CEE strives to conserve.

The LPR 2020 also includes pioneering modelling which shows that without further efforts to counteract habitat loss and degradation, global biodiversity will continue to decline. Based on a paper, ‘Bending the Curve of Terrestrial Biodiversity Needs an Integrated Strategy,’ co-authored by WWF and more than 40 NGOs and academic institutions and published today in Nature, the modelling makes clear that stabilising and reversing the loss of nature caused by human destruction of natural habitats will only be possible if bolder, more ambitious conservation efforts are embraced and transformational changes made to the way we produce and consume food. Changes needed include making food production and trade more efficient and ecologically sustainable, reducing waste, and favouring healthier and more environmentally-friendly diets.

“The COVID-19 crisis has shown that science, when taken into account by politicians, can offer solutions for bending the curve as long as collective action is taken. With the knowledge of today, we have the chance to rebuild more resilient societies and economies that can bend the curve of biodiversity loss too. The Living Planet Report explores scenarios on how this can be achieved while still feeding a growing human population. The way in which we react to the COVID-19 crisis will determine whether or not we succeed in the fight against climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution and inequality, creating health benefits for all of us. This is why WWF’s New Deal for Nature and People and the EU Green Deal should be the basis of any economic recovery plans developed by Central and Eastern European countries.” – Irene Lucius, Regional Conservation Director, WWF Central and Eastern Europe.

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