The biodiversity of the planet is in peril. Today, over a million species of plants and animals are on the verge of extinction. Scientists believe we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, the largest since the dinosaurs.
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A new comprehensive report paints a bleak picture of the Earth’s future. According to the Living Planet Report, monitored wildlife populations have dropped by 69% on average since 1970.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Zoological Society of London published this biennial report based on the Living Planet Index. It compiles data from 195 countries’ monitored wildlife populations and ecosystems. The report indicates how the population sizes of various monitored species have changed over time. The findings are significant indicators in terms of how organisms thrive and respond to environmental pressures.
The new assessment highlights a dramatic decline in animal populations around the world. It took into account 32,000 populations of 5,230 species, which included mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish.
Species across the waters at risk
The landmark report warns that monitored freshwater species have been imperiled at far higher rates than any other species, with an average decline of 83% since 1970. Freshwater fish populations have suffered the most, declining by 76% between 1970 and 2016.
Barriers in fish migration routes and habitat destruction have been identified as major contributors to this significant loss. According to one study, only 37% of the world’s rivers (spanning more than 1,000 kilometers) are still free-flowing. Long-distance fish migration routes have been hampered by human activities such as dam construction.
Furthermore, the Amazon pink river dolphin, which only lives in freshwater, declined by 65% between 1994 and 2016 in Brazil’s Mamirauá Reserve. Oceanic shark and ray populations, on the other hand, have plummeted by more than 71% on average since 1970, while South and Western Australian sea lions have collapsed by 64% between 1977 and 2019.
Climate change has also played a significant role in the decline of aquatic creatures. The global temperature has risen by 1.2 degrees Celsius since pre-industrial times, thereby increasing the existential crisis. In fact, for the third year in a row, ocean temperatures were the highest on record in 2021.
Land animals are also being impacted
Terrestrial animals are also threatened, especially the lesser-known ones. Additionally, some of the most biodiversity-rich regions have been the most severely impacted. For example, Latin America has experienced a catastrophic 94% decline in all major vertebrate groups since 1970. Africa had the second-highest drop at 66%, followed by Asia-Pacific at 55%, North America at 20% and Europe and Central Asia at 18%.
There are also some bright spots, thanks to ongoing conservation efforts. The report highlights the population increases of mountain gorillas in the Virunga Mountains and loggerhead turtles in Cyprus.
Climate change fueling the crisis
Over the last couple of years, the figures show a continuous drop in the wildlife population trend. In 2020, the decline was 68%, up from 60% in 2018. So why should we be concerned? The answer is simple: the health of nature is inextricably linked to human health.
Human intervention has driven wildlife to extinction by clearing forests, releasing planet-warming gases and polluting the air, land and ocean. Habitat destruction could also trigger the spread of zoonotic diseases. The other major threats to biodiversity include food production, hunting, diseases and invasive species. Food production is responsible for nearly 70% of the decline in terrestrial biodiversity.
“We face the double emergencies of human-induced climate change and biodiversity loss, threatening the well-being of current and future generations,” said Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF International.
A call to action on the climate crisis
The report, written by 89 authors, is a call to action for governments, policymakers, organizations and individuals. Rising temperatures, pollution and deforestation are just a few of the major issues that require immediate attention.
The authors urge for “system-wide changes in how we produce and consume, the technology we use and our economic and financial systems” for the planet’s better future. At the same time, Indigenous people and local community participation are critical to amplify conservation efforts. Moreover, increasing the conservation and restoration of ecosystems such as mangroves can benefit biodiversity, climate and people. The WWF statement highlights “rapidly and deeply decarbonizing all sectors can mitigate the twin crises.”
The climate crisis is endangering the future of both biodiversity and humanity. The IPCC’s report, “Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability,” is a stark reminder that action must be taken now. It showcased nearly 44% of known species are at high extinction risk, while 24% are at very high extinction risk as a result of climate change.
If emissions continue unabated, biodiversity loss may be irreversible. Therefore, limiting global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius is an urgent need of the hour to keep the ecosystem and its dependent habitats healthy.
The upcoming Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in December will urge nations to take immediate action to restore the world’s most impacted biodiversity hotspots.