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Global populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish have declined by over two-thirds in less than half a century, due in large part to the same environmental destruction that is contributing to the emergence of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19, according to a World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) report released today.

What happens to insects matters a lot to humanity

Lynn Dicks

The WWF’s Living Planet Report 2020 presents a comprehensive overview of the state of our natural world as captured by the Living Planet Index (LPI) of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). Almost 21,000 populations of over 4,000 vertebrate species were tracked between 1970 and 2016, with contributions from over 125 experts from around the world. 

“The Living Planet Report 2020 underlines how humanity’s increasing destruction of nature is having catastrophic impacts not only on wildlife populations, but on human health and all aspects of our lives,” said Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International. 

He added: “In the midst of a global pandemic, it is now more important than ever to take unprecedented and coordinated global action to halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity and wildlife populations across the globe by the end of the decade.” 

The report shows that the main cause of the dramatic decline in species populations on land is habitat loss and degradation, including deforestation, driven by food production. Factors believed to increase the planet’s vulnerability to pandemics, including land-use change and the use and trade of wildlife, are also drivers of the decline. 

Endangered species include the eastern lowland gorilla, whose numbers in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo have seen an estimated 87 percent decline between 1994 and 2015 mostly due to illegal hunting, and the African grey parrot in southwest Ghana, whose numbers fell by up to 99 percent between 1992 and 2014 due to threats posed by trapping for the wild bird trade and habitat loss.

Wildlife populations found in freshwater habitats have suffered a decline of 84 per cent - the starkest average population decline in any biome. For example, the spawning population of the Chinese sturgeon in China’s Yangtze river declined by 97 percent between 1982 and 2015 due to the damming of the waterway.

University of Cambridge zoologists Dr Lynn Dicks and Dr Edgar Turner contributed a summary of global insect decline to the report. They reveal evidence of recent, rapid declines in insect abundance and diversity in some places, but not everywhere. The researchers highlight the importance of long-term monitoring of insect abundance around the world.

Dicks, a Lecturer in Animal Ecology in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, said: “Most information about insects comes from a small number of countries in the northern hemisphere. There is very little information from large parts of the world such as Africa, South America and Asia, where land use change and agricultural expansion - key drivers of insect decline - are happening fast.” 

She added: “What happens to insects matters a lot to humanity. These small six-legged creatures play central roles in the world’s ecosystems - as waste processors, pollinators, predators, and prey. Without them, humans - and all of nature - could be in a lot of trouble.”

Dr Andrew Terry, ZSL’s Director of Conservation said: “This report is clear evidence of the damage human activity is doing to the natural world. If nothing changes, populations will undoubtedly continue to fall, driving wildlife to extinction and threatening the integrity of the ecosystems on which we all depend. But we also know that conservation works and species can be brought back from the brink. With commitment, investment and expertise, these trends can be reversed.”

Stabilising and reversing the loss of nature caused by humans’ destruction of natural habitats will only be possible if bolder, more ambitious conservation efforts are embraced, and transformational changes made to the way we produce and consume food. Changes include making food production and trade more efficient and ecologically sustainable, reducing waste, and favouring healthier and more environmentally-friendly diets. Implementing these measures together, rather than in isolation, will allow the world to more rapidly alleviate pressures on wildlife habitats. 

The Living Planet Report 2020 launches less than a week before the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly, when leaders are expected to review the progress made on the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Bringing together world leaders, businesses and civil society, the meeting will develop the post-2020 framework for action for global biodiversity. 

Lambertini said: “With leaders gathering virtually for the UN General Assembly in a few days’ time, this research can help us secure a New Deal for Nature and People which will be key to the long-term survival of wildlife, plant and insect populations and the whole of nature, including humankind.  A New Deal has never been needed more.”

The Living Planet Report is WWF's flagship publication and is produced every two years as a comprehensive study of trends in global biodiversity and the health of the planet. This is the 13th edition.

Adapted from a press release by WWF.


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