Live or let die?: 68% decline in animal diversity due to human activity

Image Credit: Neil Tarrant

Jade Norton investigates the staggering decline in wildlife diversity and annual WWF Living Planet Report.

“The living world is a unique and spectacular marvel, yet the way we humans live on earth is sending it into a decline” This quote from David Attenborough delivers a simple yet effective message and through his Netflix movie “A Life on our Planet” Attenborough appeals to us to protect Earth before it is too late. This visual medium is the latest appeal to humans to save the world and it comes alongside the World Wildlife Fund for Nature’s (WWF) 2020 Living Planet Report, which gives the statistics and measurable effects on the biodiversity of our planet. This report is released annually and provides a comprehensive science-based overview of the health of our planet and the impact of human activity. This year the message was possibly bleaker than before, as a tallying up of data and scientific knowledge showed that there has been an average 68% fall in monitored vertebrate species populations between 1970 and 2016. The sizeable fall can be attributed to the detrimental effect human activity is having on the planet resources and reducing the space available for biodiversity to thrive.

The diversity of animals is measured by the Living Planet Index which tracks the abundance of the almost 21,000 animal populations on this planet. Its data starts from 1970 and is currently reflective of how the destruction of natural habitats is drastically reducing the number of species in the area. This is particularly evident in Latin America and the Caribbean, where there has been a 94% decline in species. This is particularly evident in the tropical subregions of the Americas, with specific depletions of populations of reptiles, amphibians and fish. Overexploitation of these biodiverse natural areas derives from hydropower development, climate change, and deforestation. A fascinating result of this report is the belief that humanity’s influence on the decline of nature is so great, scientists believe we are entering a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. This belief is substantiated by the knowledge that humans have driven at least 680 species of vertebrates to extinction since 1500, as seen on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

The increase in global trade, consumption, and human population growth over the last 50 years has been done under the shadow of the enormous move towards urbanisation and is central to the destruction of nature. There has also been a huge increase in the population spread with about 50% of the population living in cities. Since 1970, our Ecological Footprint has exceeded the Earth’s rate of regeneration and our carbon footprint has been constantly increasing. The rate of consumption is not currently sustainable as many of the products consumed on a daily basis are not reusable or recyclable and break the cycle of regeneration on earth that has kept species alive before us. Despite this huge waste, there are more than 820 million people who face hunger or food insecurity. This is in stark contrast to the societal consumerism that has infected most of the western world.

Nature is essential for human existence and most importantly cohabitation with our speciated neighbours leads to a better quality of life as we rely on animals and plants more than they rely on us. The current perception of what we use is changing as many people look for greener ways to live and less harmful ways to exist with the realisation that living on this planet is non-negotiable. The products that we value are all supplied by the earth and many are finite. Incorporating regulation of the use of the world resources can reduce overexploitation which in turn allows regeneration. This cycle is found in all natural systems across the world and the WWF emphasises that it is essential for businesses and us as a species to understand this and work together to provide a sustainable future. A healthy planet means a healthy people - increased human health and well-being. Having this decline due to unregulated exploration and alteration of the worlds natural systems would undo these successes. Biodiversity is fundamental to food security- of which healthy eating can contribute to; this can be obtained from a reduction in overconsumption of natural sources. 

A New York art piece recently made headlines as it shows a countdown clock ticking down to the date at which it is too late to make changes to prevent catastrophic climate change. Currently, this time is set at seven years from today and it is based on calculations by the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change. The 2027 date is more emblematic than a literal date for catastrophe, but it aims to be a catalyst to bring about change. The breakthroughs and golden age of technology that we live in are often being touted as a golden opportunity for all, yet we need the platinum option. Our current computing power allows us to digitally map out the future, and model scenarios have been created that show the solutions that can be implemented to save the natural systems on Earth and its biodiversity.

The results of this report come amidst unsettling global feeling and a sense of insecurity. The key message from these pages has always been that nature is on a decline and it is due to our habits. Over the millennia there have been many mass-extinctions of species and catastrophic events that decreased diversity; however, these events were usually geographical and due to a natural changing of the planet. The rapid changes composed by humans are leading to cacophonous changes that are overwhelming the Earth systems. Our want for constant improvement and rapid success is reflected across society as countries are striving to be bigger and better. As we look at the decline in natural spaces and the loss of species who survived the dinosaurs but not the human-era we can wonder if these activities are a mirror to who we are as a species or has our current society given away our choices to a select few with other more nefarious ideals?