A sobering report concludes that mankind has driven a worldwide massacre of all life forms. Directly or indirectly, we’ve wiped out more than half of all living animals since 1970 — here are the main takeaways.

Tigers are just one of the species currently on the brink of extinction due to human activities.

A new WWF report based on the work of 59 scientists shows that increasing pressure from human population is disrupting virtually all environments on the planet, annihilating ecosystems and threatening all types of creatures.

“We are sleepwalking towards the edge of a cliff” said Mike Barrett, executive director of science and conservation at WWF. “If there was a 60% decline in the human population, that would be equivalent to emptying North America, South America, Africa, Europe, China and Oceania. That is the scale of what we have done.”

The Living Planet Report 2018, WWF’s comprehensive study of the health of the planet, serves as a grim reminder of the pressure we exert on nature. The main finding is that the population of vertebrates (which are what we typically consider ‘animals‘) have, on average, declined by 60% in just over 40 years; that’s a rate of decline of 13.6% per decade.

Some countries have a higher impact than others. How is your country faring? Depicted here, Image credits: WWF.

It’s not all bad news, though — there are several examples of successful conservation efforts. Tiger numbers in India have gone up, the river dolphins in the Amazon are finally being studied and protected, and in Ethiopia, public awareness has led to a stabilization of the Ethiopian Wolf habitat. There is a ton of evidence that conservation funding works and that science, and a that proper understanding of the science and the environmental situation can pave the way for successful conservation initiatives. Yet overall, the planetary-wide view gives a lot of reason for concern.

South and Central America have seen an 89% drop in vertebrate populations, largely driven by the felling of vast areas of wildlife-rich forest. But it’s not like those areas alone have to account for this — for instance, much of the cleared areas is used to grow soy, which is exported largely to Europe and the US.

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“It is a classic example of where the disappearance is the result of our own consumption, because the deforestation is being driven by ever expanding agriculture producing soy, which is being exported to countries including the UK to feed pigs and chickens,” he said.

The biggest cause of wildlife loss is the destruction of natural habitats — typically, to create farmland. Killing for food is the second most prevalent cause — with over 300 mammal species being eaten into extinction. The oceans aren’t doing much better either: the vast majority of fish stocks are overfished, and many populations are already starting to collapse.

Image credits: WWF.

Chemical and plastic pollution are also major aspects, and global trade creates a perfect gateway for invasive species and diseases to spread.

Because the problem is so complex, there’s no simple, straightforward, and unique solution — no silver bullet. We need a systemic change to address all these issues, and many more. It won’t be easy, but if we don’t do it, we will fail, too.

Save the animals? No, let’s save ourselves

The fact that we are destroying ecosystems is not new by any stretch. It’s been discussed for decades, and while some action has been taken, mankind is still accentuating its impact rather than reducing it. But researchers stress that even if we don’t care about saving animals and ecosystems, we should still do so — because our skin is also on the line.

This Living Planet Report joins an ever-increasing number of research and policy papers building the case that our planet’s natural systems are fundamental to our society. We depend on pollinators for agriculture, we depend on trees for stabilizing soils, and we depend on a myriad of animals which offer countless environmental services. If they fall, it could take a while, but eventually, we will fall too.

The report urges policymakers to understand how pressing the situation is and to take immediate action.

“Yet, the future of millions of species on Earth seems not to have captured the imagination or attention of the world’s leaders enough to catalyse the change necessary. We need to radically escalate the political relevance of nature and galvanize a cohesive movement across state and non-state actors to drive change, to ensure that public and private decision-makers understand that business as usual is not an option.”

It remains to be seen whether the right people will heed this warning, or if we will continue “business as usual.” In a way, the choice belongs to all of us, because we all elect people to develop policies, but it’s easy to see why so many people feel completely powerless in the face of such a gargantuan problem.

The report ends with a call for an international agreement — something in the lines of the Paris Agreement, perhaps — to curb the rate of biodiversity loss. The WWF considers the next two years as crucial if we want to achieve this goal.

“The evidence becomes stronger every day that humanity’s survival depends on our natural systems, yet we continue to destroy the health of nature at an alarming rate. It’s clear that efforts to stem the loss of biodiversity have not worked and business as usual will amount to, at best, a continued, managed decline. That’s why we, along with conservation and science colleagues around the world, are calling for the most ambitious international agreement yet – a new global deal for nature and people – to bend the curve of
biodiversity loss.”