The total count of all wild mammals, birds, amphibians, fish, and reptiles has dropped an astounding 69% in just under five decades, according to a just released study by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature.
The world's biodiversity depends on many interdependent species and interconnected healthy habitats for them to survive. This snail and flower, which depend on each other for their lives, are just two examples. Photo: Image by Myléne from Pixabay
It is a collapse of global biodiversity unprecedented in the modern age.
It has happened mostly because of human actions and inaction. Whether because of destruction of wild habitats in the name of big business, greed, recklessness in our stewardship of the planet, and putting our needs ahead of nature, or indirectly as the climate crisis grows more intense, we are the ones responsible.
We are also the only ones who can save the remaining wildlife from being wiped out at even faster rates.
To find out just how much biodiversity damage we have caused, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, in conjunction with the Zoological Society of London, examined in detail the state of 32,000 total populations of wildlife composed of 5,200 different species. What they found was that an average of 69% of those populations have died off in the period between 1970 and 2018.
This is the high level summary of what these two organizations just put forth in their exhaustive new report, "Living Planet Report 2022: Building a Nature Positive Society".
The team which put this together painstakingly checked the data to ensure the data was not skewed by specific species or population die-off outside of normal, ongoing trends. They also put error bounds on their high-level data, and say with confidence that there has been between a minimum 63% to a maximum of 75% drop in total wildlife lost from 1970 to 2018.
During those years, nature has done what it has always done, attempting to evolve to meet the opportunities and threats laid in front of it. That has resulted in the creation of 838 new species and 11,011 increases in population since 1970. This evolutionary response is especially prevalent in fish populations, where the total number of species represented in the survey is up by 29%, for 481 new species added.
Unfortunately, the surge in some species is nowhere near enough to compensate for the declines in others. Despite the surge in fish species differentiation, for example, the category of wildlife which has manifested the biggest overall decline during the study period was for freshwater species. That category saw 83% of their total population disappear. Of that, the important species category of migratory fish was among the most threatened.
These fish statistics are updated from Forgotten Fishes, a 2021 study also published by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature. In that earlier report, the WWF noted that pollution related to runoff from agricultural lands and global heating due to the climate crisis were major causes for that global 83% decline in these populations. It also that megafish, a designation for fish weighing more than 66 pounds (30 kilograms), were affecting far more by damage to their habitats than are the smaller species. According to the 2021 report, a shocking 94% of these larger fish which used to be around as of 1970 are now gone.
In the oceans, warming seas, ocean acidification, and increasing pollution have also contributed to rapid declines in populations of certain species. Sharks and rays, just as two examples, have seen their counts drop by 71% during the reporting period. Of the species which remain in these categories, by 2020 77% of those — 24 species — are currently facing extinction, up from just 29% as of 1980. This includes the once well-known oceanic Whitetip Shark whose population has declined in numbers by 95% since 1970 and is now designated as critically endangered.
The continent which suffered the most damage was Latin America; there “average population abundance” has fallen by 94% in that time. A major cause of that is what has happened to the Amazon Rainforest since then. The analysis showed a full 17% of that forest is gone now, as a result of mostly illegal logging, burning, and bulldozing of the lands to make room for mining, agriculture, and raising of livestock. Another 17% of what is left is substantially degraded from what it used to be as a fully sustainable network of thriving ecosystems.
Latin America is of course not the only region with rapid deforestation. In the Republic of Guinea in west Africa, 96% of the forests which used to be present in the 1990s no longer exist. Among the losses because of this is what used to be an abundant supply of the many edible and highly nutritious tree nuts such as the gingerbread plum bansouma, tola, and petit kola which are native to these lands.With the forests gone, for wildlife and the Indigenous peoples alike who live there, there are few ready alternatives to fill that gap in their diets.
Another section of the study found that the continent of Europe had the lowest scores of any continent on a comparative index of “biodiversity intactness.” As evidence of that, it noted that while migratory fish populations, which are considered of high importance to freshwater systems, declined by 76% on average since 1970, in Europe those populations have dropped by 93% since that time.
The study also determined that up to 2.5% of all wildlife has become extinct since that time as well.
For those species which still exist since 1970, they have suffered multiple shocks which are weakening their ability to continue to exist. Thanks to the climate crisis and forced migration as the waters and lands where they used to live, the study says, “many species are losing their climatically determined habitats”.
A major contributor to what has happened is a long-term trend of destruction of what the authors refer to as “ecological connectivity”, which is a measure of how easily species can move from region to region and still survive. It also encompasses considerations of how readily natural processes flow from one place to the next. Thanks to our increasingly structured ways of living and often reckless land-use policies, multiple issues are contributing to increasing habitat fragmentation globally. Since 1970, the total available habitat area for wildlife has diminished significantly and the quality of the habitats to sustain wildlife has degraded as well. There are also more serious “edge” effects now from one habitat zone to another, as natural and “altered” habitats come together abruptly now, resulting in further degradation of living spaces in those edge regions as well. And even the best human ecological designers are only now beginning to understand how complex properly balanced biodiverse ecosystems are.
The researchers also note that as these ecosystems collapse thanks to fragmentation, they trigger a downward spiral of ecological dysfunctions”. That includes fracturing the integrated web of food systems to support various species, and damaging natural processes such as freshwater movement and pollination. Habitat isolation, the study goes on, further “limits the ability of species to move to fulfil their needs – to migrate, to disperse, to find mates, to feed and to complete their life cycles – and can lead to extinction”.
Besides the loss of wildlife populations, the loss of habitat both by human engineering and the climate crisis have pushed nature into a collective “evolutionary corner”. Compared to 1970, there is now a much smaller range of genetic diversity in species than was present just five decades ago.
What all this adds up to is that wildlife which is still around is now less able to adapt to whatever happens to their home ecosystems. This suggests the extinction rates for wildlife will accelerate in the years to come.
The authors of this study describe the “Code Red” emergency of mass biodiversity loss as having its only near-equivalent in scope as the climate crisis. Both are “threatening the well-being of current and future generations”. Both are also the consequences of recklessness in the ways in “how we produce and consume, the technology we use, and our economic and financial systems”.
The report recommends among other things changing the way we look at conservation to be about far more than just looking at species and their individual habitats. Building on the analysis which shows how fragmentation of the living regions for these species has a powerful impact on their survival capacity, the authors push for a new approach they refer to as “connectivity conservation”. They say this approach, involving protecting and rebuilding ecological connections and waters through ecological corridors, linkage areas and wildlife crossing structures – is rapidly emerging around the world as an effective way to combat habitat fragmentation and to enhance climate resilience”.
To illustrate the concept, for freshwater fish biodiversity can be markedly improved by removing dams and improving the ability of fish through other barriers separating habitats. The study cites the example of eliminating two dams and making structural changes to others affecting fish movement within the Penobscot River in Maine in the United States. Doing so allowed river herring populations to rise from just a few hundred remaining before the changes to 2 million within five years afterward.
The study also argues for returning to the Indigenous peoples of the world to address a related cause of habitat damage, the lack of fresh clean water. As the report points out, Indigenous peoples “have cared for and managed surface and groundwater for many generations” and have a “connection to water [which] is strong”. They highlight the example of the National Cultural Flows Research Project (NCFRP) in southeast Australia as having demonstrated the value of seeking out these people who have tended to the lands and their waters in a climate which has been dry for tens of thousands of years. They also report that, despite the obvious value of seeking out these peoples for solutions, government inaction, the small numbers of Indigenous people available to tap for their knowledge of extreme drought water management, and the dominance of non-Indigenous in setting policies and methodologies has greatly restricted the ability to take advantage of the wisdom of the Indigenous.
Embedded in all these categories of proposed solutions is something far more than just conservation, the traditional approach used in the past. In its place is the concept of bringing back what was and what is needed to restore nature to what it needs to be for species to thrive and expand again.
It is this restoration principle which is behind a newly proposed law that the European Union is currently considering, as a means of slowing the continued wildlife count decline at least in its region of the world. The proposed EU Nature Restoration law, proposed by the European Commission this past June, is intended to put reconnecting the ecosystems within in the region’s oceans and freshwater waterways, and on its lands, as a priority to revitalize biodiversity within the European Continent.
Slowing the pace of biodiversity collapse, like the challenge of slowing the pace of global heating, is a mammoth undertaking. To address it will require the best biosystem research minds to determine the optimum range of solutions to make even the smallest dent in the fuller ecological collapse that could happen just in this decade alone. It will also require considerable humility as we realize the importance of and respect the complex ecological networks nature already built to provide for us during the entire cycle of human life on the planet.
It will also require each of us to step up and change our habits. Meat consumption is the single greatest cause of environment destruction while there is no nutritional requirement for humans to consume meat, dairy or eggs. Adopting a healthy whole foods plant based diet is the single most important thing any individual can do for the planet and their own health.
"Living Planet Report 2022: Building a Nature Positive Society", the full report from the World Wide Fund for Nature on the rapid decline in biodiversity since 1970, is available for download here.