Bighorn sheep (such as this lamb) have declined dramatically since European-American settlement of the Rocky Mountains. Credit: Wikipedia

Bighorn sheep (such as this lamb) have declined dramatically since European-American settlement of the Rocky Mountains. Credit: Wikipedia

It’s obvious human have completely altered the landscape of this planet. Few places on this vast world are still untouched by our hands. Meanwhile, where humans live wildlife has to suffer. Habitat loss, poaching, man-made climate change — all have taken their toll on wildlife populations as evidenced by the hundreds of species that went extinct and the thousands currently endangered. Despite the best efforts of conservationists, things aren’t getting any better, the Living Planet Report 2016 suggests. The main takeaway, according to the authors, is that wildlife populations are declining at a huge rate. 

By the end of this decade, global vertebrate populations are on course to decline by an average of 67 percent from 1970 levels. That’s unless we take action.

The forecast is based on a steady annual rate of decline of 2% which has held true for decades. Already, since 1970, global populations of fish, birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians have declined by 58 percent.

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Wildlife populations have declined by 58% already since 1970. Credit: WWF

Wildlife populations have declined by 58% already since 1970. Credit: WWF

“For the first time since the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, we face a global mass extinction of wildlife. We ignore the decline of other species at our peril – for they are the barometer that reveals our impact on the world that sustains us. Humanity’s misuse of natural resources is threatening habitats, pushing irreplaceable species to the brink and threatening the stability of our climate,” Mike Barrett, Director of Science and Policy at WWF-UK said.

The analysis produced by the WWF and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) is the most comprehensive survey of its kind to date. Inside the report, we can learn in detail how deforestation, pollution or overfishing is pushing many species to the edge.

Case studies

  • Africa’s elephant population has crashed by an estimated 111,000 in the past decade primarily due to poaching. 2016 estimates suggest there are 415,000 elephants across the 37 range states in Africa.
  • The maned wolf, along with other large mammals including the giant anteater, is threatened by the increasing conversion of grasslands into farmland for grazing and growing crops in the Brazilian Cerrado.
  • The hellbender salamander underwent population declines of 77 percent across five locations in Missouri between 1975 and 1995. Degradation of habitat from the effects of agriculture and the recreational use of rivers is believed to be the main cause of the decline.
  • Orca populations in European waters are under threat from persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Despite legislative restrictions on their use, these pollutants are still present in orcas’ blubber at levels that exceed all known marine mammal toxicity thresholds.
  • The leatherback turtle has become increasingly rare in both the tropical Atlantic and Pacific. For example, it declined by 95 percent between 1989 and 2002 in Las Baulas National Park in Costa Rica. This decline was caused mainly by mortality at sea due to individuals being caught as by-catch and by development around nesting beaches. Similar trends have been observed throughout the species range.
  • The European eel is declining due to disease, overfishing and changes to its freshwater habitat that impede its migration to the sea to breed.
  • The White-backed vulture, long-billed vulture, slender-billed vulture and the Himalayan griffon have been decimated throughout South East Asia over the past 20 years due to the widespread use of the anti-inflammatory cattle drug diclofenac. The drug causes kidney failure in birds that eat the carcasses of recently-treated cattle.
  • The Yangtze river dolphin has declined largely due to incidental mortality by collisions with fishing vessels and entanglement in fishing gear An intensive survey carried out in China in 2006 failed to find any evidence that the species survives.
  • Gharial – India and Nepal: degradation of its habitat, accidental bycatch in fishing nets and harvesting of eggs have led to declines of this critically endangered species of crocodile.
  • Amphibians – global: A species of fungus that causes chytridiomycosis, a disease of amphibians, is implicated in the steep decline or extinction of more than 200 species.
  • Major Mitchell’s cockatoo underwent a precipitous population crash in Australia, largely due to the illegal taking of eggs for the pet trade. The population is now slowly recovering due to better enforcement of the law, but the species remains at risk from the clearing of woodland habitat and the destruction of nesting trees.
  • Tigers – Asia: around 3900 tigers are left in the wild facing threats of habitat destruction, climate change, and human wildlife conflict. The species is critically endangered
  • Amur Leopards – Asia: As few as 70 Amur leopards are left in the wild, facing threats of habitat destruction and human wildlife conflict. The species is critically endangered.
  • Giant Panda – Asia: 1864 giant pandas remain in the wild. Threats include human wildlife conflict and climate change. The species is listed as vulnerable.
  • Mountain Gorillas – Africa: 880 of the critically endangered mountain gorilla remain in the wild facing threats of habitat destruction and human wildlife conflict.

However, there are some positive stories shared in the report, as well. These include the well-received ratification of the Paris climate-change agreement or news of stricter restrictions and sanctions on the international trade of threatened species. Global tiger and panda populations are on the rise, too. When there’s a will, there’s a way the authors of the report seem to tell us.

“We know how to stop this. It requires governments, businesses and citizens to rethink how we produce, consume, measure success and value the natural environment. In the UK, this demands a serious plan to strengthen protection for habitats and species and new measures to fast track low-carbon growth. Britain, like all developed nations, must take increasing responsibility for its global footprint. December’s conference on the UN Convention on Biological Diversity would be a good place for the UK government to signal that it’s serious about helping tackle the global loss of species,” Barett added.

“Human behaviour continues to drive the decline of wildlife populations globally, with particular impact on freshwater habitats. Importantly, however, these are declines – they are not yet extinctions – and this should be a wake-up call to marshal efforts to promote the recovery of these populations,” Professor Ken Norris, Director of Science at ZSL said.