WWF Living Planet Index shows wild animal population decline almost 70 per cent in ‘worrying’ report

Original publication by Liana Walker and wires for abc.net.au on 13 October 2022

Some species including the mountain gorilla in the Virunga National Park has seen population increases where globally other animal numbers are declining.
(AP: Jerome Delay)

Wild populations of a number of animals have plummeted nearly 70 per cent in the last 50 years according to a new study highlighting “devastating” losses by the World Wildlife Fund. 

The WWF Living Planet Index showed accelerating falls across the globe from 32,000 populations of more than 5,000 species of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish.

It found the main drivers of wildlife loss were habitat degradation due to development and farming, exploitation, the introduction of invasive species, pollution, climate change and disease.

Wildlife populations in Latin America and the Caribbean were hit especially hard, experiencing a 94 per cent drop in the five decades.

Key points:

  • The report researched 5000 species across 50 years
  • Some areas experienced wildlife losses of up to 94 per cent
  • The report found better biodiversity in Indigenous territories compared to others

One population of pink river dolphins in the Brazilian Amazon plummeted by 65 per cent between 1994 and 2016, the report said.

Globally, the report found that monitored animal populations had fallen 69 per cent between 1970 and 2018.

In Australia, the report states heatwaves and droughts are driving mass mortality events in trees, birds, bats, and fish. 

Australia has seen mass losses of flying foxes as a result of climate events.
(ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

“A single hot day in 2014 killed more than 45,000 flying fox bats in Australia,” the report said.

“Climate changes have also been linked to the loss of whole populations of more than 1,000 plant and animal species.”

The report found agriculture was one of the most prevalent threats to amphibians while climate change has a particular impact on Australia’s east coast birds. 

WWF director ‘extremely worried’

WWF International director general Marco Lambertini said his organisation was “extremely worried” by the new data.

“(It shows) a devastating fall in wildlife populations, in particular in tropical regions that are home to some of the most biodiverse landscapes in the world,” he said.

WWF director of science Mark Wright said the figures were “truly frightening”, particularly for Latin America.

“Latin America is renowned for its biodiversity of course, it’s really important for lots of other things as well,” he said.

“It’s super important for regulating the climate.

“We estimate currently there’s something like 150 to 200 billion tonnes of carbon wrapped up in the forests of the Amazon.”

That is equivalent to 550 to 740 billion tonnes of CO2, or 10 to 15 times more than annual greenhouse gas emissions at current rates.

The Amazon rainforest has been destroyed rapidly in past years due to a combination of illegal logging and poor food practices. 
(Four Corners)

The index found that freshwater species had declined more than those found in any other habitat, with an 83 per cent population fall since 1970.

The report’s findings were broadly similar to those in WWF’s last assessment in 2020, with wildlife population sizes continuing to decline at a rate of about 2.5 per cent per year.

Mr Lambertini said the world needed to rethink its harmful and wasteful agricultural practices before the global food chain collapsed.

“Food systems today are responsible for over 80 per cent of deforestation on land, and if you look at the ocean and freshwater they are also driving a collapse of fishery stocks and populations in those habitats,” he said.

With world leaders due to convene in Montreal for the COP15 biodiversity summit in December, the report’s authors called for an international, binding commitment to protect nature, similar to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

Fears of ‘unravelling and the natural world is emptying’

The Living Planet Report argued that increasing conservation and restoration efforts, producing and consuming food more sustainably, and rapidly and deeply decarbonising all sectors can alleviate the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss.

It also called for governments to properly factor into policymaking the value of services rendered by nature, such as food, medicine and water supply.

“We need to stress the fact that nature loss is not just a moral issue of our duty to protect the rest of the world,” Mr Lambertini said.

“It is actually an issue of material value, an issue of security for humanity as well.”

Marco Lambertini says the falls in population are devastating.
(Reuters: Pedro Nunes)

Some areas experienced more population loss than others — Europe, for example, saw a wildlife population decline of 18 per cent.

“But that also masks historic, very extreme losses of biodiversity,” Andrew Terry, director of conservation at the Zoological Society of London — which helped compile the data — said.

“We know that we’re coming out of (a) low point in the state of biodiversity in the northern hemisphere.”

Mr Terry said the serious drop told us that nature is “unravelling and the natural world is emptying.”

In Africa, where 70 per cent of livelihoods rely on nature in some form, the report showed a two-thirds fall in wildlife populations since 1970.

WWF Africa regional director Alice Ruhweza said the assessment showed how there was a “huge human cost” when nature is lost.

She said young people in particular were concerned about wildlife preservation, and would push governments to implement greater protective measures.

“We have a young, entrepreneurial and increasingly educated population that is showing more awareness around issues of nature,” she said. 

“So the potential for transformative change is really significant. But the time is running short, and we need to act now.”

The report finds some good news

Despite the worrying content, there were some glimmers of hope.

The report found vertebrate biodiversity in Indigenous territories, including Australia, was equal to or surpassed that found within formally protected areas.

“Far from the colonial idea of separating people from nature in order to preserve it – and the concept of the pristine or wilderness free from human influence – Indigenous approaches to conservation regularly place reciprocal people-place relationships at the centre of cultural and care practices,” it read. 

“These approaches hinge on systems of Indigenous knowledge which include scientific and ecological understandings that are carried across generations through language, story, ceremony, practice and law.”

While the eastern lowland gorilla population in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Kahuzi-Biega National Park fell by 80 per cent between 1994 and 2019 due to bushmeat hunting, the mountain gorilla population near Virunga National Park increased from around 400 individuals in 2010 to over 600 by 2018.

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