Populations of wild mammals, birds, amphibians, fish and reptiles have declined by 58% from 1970 to 2012, according to the Living Planet Report 2016. This report, produced by environmental charity World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London and the Global Footprint Network, also revealed that populations of vertebrates are on track to fall by two-thirds by 2020 if this current trend continues.
The report analysed data from over 14,000 populations of 3,706 vertebrate species to calculate changes in abundance over time. The data showed that population sizes have been decreasing by an average of 2% annually with no sign that this rate is likely to change.
The biggest threat to biodiversity is the loss and degradation of habitats. Residential and commercial development, unsustainable agriculture and logging are among the contributing factors. Freshwater species have been hit hardest by this, with the destruction of habitats due to excessive water extraction, building of dams or pollution leading to a decline in freshwater populations of 81% since 1970.
In addition, pollution and climate change are playing an increasing role in affecting the abundance of vertebrate populations. Changes in temperature, for example, can alter seasonal activities such as migration or reproduction, causing these events to happen at the wrong times. This leads to problems such as species attempting to breed when food supply is insufficient. Another major threat to biodiversity is the overexploitation of species by unsustainable fishing, hunting, poaching or harvesting. This is particularly a problem for marine species, which have declined by over a third in the last four decades.
The report warns that to protect the Earth’s biodiversity, action must be taken now to make food and energy systems more sustainable and to address climate change. However, despite the ominous facts and figures, the WWF states that there is still reason to be optimistic. With the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals adopted by UN Member States and 195 countries agreeing to combat global climate change in the Paris Climate Conference in 2015, there is now more hope that the world is heading in the right direction towards a sustainable society.