Global vertebrate populations have plunged by two-thirds, says World Wildlife Fund

New flagship report looks at biodiversity loss as “the unravelling of nature”

An Eastern Lowland Gorilla, endemic to the mountainous forests of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Chris Martin Bahr, WWF
10 September 2020
Sandra Cordon
10 September 2020
Sandra Cordon

Global populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish have plunged by more than two-thirds over the last 50 years, the “catastrophic” result of human destruction of the planet’s biodiversity, according to the extensive new Living Planet Report 2020 from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a major new publication on the importance of biodiversity.

The report cites unsustainable food production, deforestation, destruction of habitat and overuse of wildlife as key contributing factors to this biodiversity loss, as well as to emerging zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19.

“Nature and biodiversity loss is so serious that it’s having a catastrophic impact; not only on wildlife populations, but also on human health and all aspects of our lives,” said Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF, in a press briefing.

African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotisat) at sunrise at Dzanga Bai, Dzanga-Sangha Special Reserve, Central African Republic. Andy Isaacson, WWF
African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotisat) at sunrise at Dzanga Bai, Dzanga-Sangha Special Reserve, Central African Republic. Andy Isaacson, WWF

“Nature is unravelling. Our planet is flashing red warning signs of Earth system failure.”

The report’s Living Planet Index (LPI), which measures the state of the world’s biological diversity, was provided by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). It outlines how factors believed to increase the planet’s vulnerability to pandemics were also some of the drivers behind the 68 percent average decline in global populations of vertebrate species between 1970 and 2016. Most of the losses are seen in freshwater amphibian, reptile and fish species, and concentrated Latin America and the Caribbean.

The WWF report also highlights:

  • Larger species (over 30 kg) face greater levels of overexploitation than smaller creatures – for example, sturgeon and Mekong giant catfish, river dolphins, otters, beavers and hippos;
  • There are twice as many documented plant extinctions as extinctions of mammals, birds and amphibians combined;
  • Oceans are at risk due to pressures including overfishing, pollution and coastal development;
  • Soil hosts one of the largest reservoirs of biodiversity on Earth: up to 90 percent of living organisms in terrestrial ecosystems spend part of their life cycle in soil habitats.
Leaf-cutter bee and milkweed flowers in South Dakota, U.S. Clay Bolt, WWF
Leaf-cutter bee and milkweed flowers in South Dakota, U.S. Clay Bolt, WWF

The report also showed how drops in biodiversity are spread unevenly across the globe. A 94 percent plunge in the LPI for the tropical subregions of the Americas “is the most striking result observed in any region.” That has been driven by the conversion of grasslands, savannahs, forests and wetlands to agricultural use, as well as over-exploitation of species, climate change and the introduction of alien species.

Unsustainable food systems are at the crux of biodiversity loss. The report sets 2030 as a deadline for reversing these trends and transforming food supply and demand, including shifting consumer behavior toward more healthy and environmentally-friendly dietary decisions.

If the world continues its “business as usual” approach, the present rates of biodiversity loss will continue over the coming years, says the report.

“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 Lambertini.

An aerial view of the Atlantic coastline in Gabon. Gabon's forests stretch to the coastline and are a haven of biodiversity. James Morgan, WWF
An aerial view of the Atlantic coastline in Gabon. Gabon’s forests stretch to the coastline. James Morgan, WWF

The LPI, which tracked almost 20,811 populations of 4,392 vertebrate species between 1970 and 2016, also shows that wildlife populations found in freshwater habitats have declined 84 percent – dropping on average 4 percent annually since 1970. One example from China’s Yangtze River is the spawning population of the Chinese sturgeon, which by 2015 was reduced to only 3 percent of what it had been in 1982, due to the damming of the waterway.  

Andrew Terry, ZSL’s director of conservation, said that without significant changes, wildlife extinction rates would continue to climb. Still, he expressed optimism. “With commitment, investment and expertise, these trends can be reversed,” said Terry. 

The Living Planet Report 2020 comes less than a week before the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly, when leaders are expected to review progress toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

The Chinese River Dolphin is believed to be possibly extinct, due to human influences on its populations and habitats. Mark Carwardine, Nature Picture Library, WWF
The Chinese River Dolphin is believed to be possibly extinct, due to human influences on its populations and habitats. Mark Carwardine, Nature Picture Library, WWF

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