World Wildlife Population in Shocking Decline

In just the past 40 years, the world has lost more than half of its vertebrate wildlife, according to a shocking new report by the World Wildlife Fund.

The report, issued last week, says 52 percent of the world population of birds, fish, mammals, reptiles and amphibians disappeared.

The report, the Living Planet Report 2014, is published every two years. It tracks more than 10,000 vertebrate species as well as measuring humanity’s global Ecological Footprint.

“These are the living forms that constitute the fabric of the ecosystems which sustain life on Earth – and the barometer of what we are doing to our own planet, our only home,” said Marco Lambertini, director general of the WWF. “We ignore their decline at our peril.”

The world is “using nature’s gifts as if we had more than just one Earth at our disposal,” Lambertini said. ”By taking more from our ecosystems and natural processes than can be replenished, we are jeopardizing our very future. Nature conservation and sustainable development go hand-in-hand. They are not only about preserving biodiversity and wild places, but just as much about safeguarding the future of humanity – our well-being, economy, food security and social stability – indeed, our very survival.”

The declines described by the current Living Planet Report eclipse the estimate from two years ago by 24 percent, with the largest declines in wildlife in tropical regions, headed by Latin America, but followed closely by the Asia-Pacific region. Hardest hit were freshwater species, which fell by a staggering 76 percent. In comparison, marine and terrestrial species both declined by 39 percent.

The enormous decline in the past two years appears to be partly statistical because the current report is dealing more with regions outside of North America and Europe. While declines were most rapid in tropical countries, one must take the per capita ecological footprint of poorer developing nations into consideration.

The Ecological Footprint compares human demands on nature with the planet’s ability to regenerate and provide. It estimates how much land and water an individual, population or activity needs to produce what it consumes and absorb the waste it generates. It is generally measured in global hectares. For example, while India and Indonesia are rapidly industrializing and experiencing issues like large-scale deforestation and high-profile extinctions in the form of tigers and orangutans, their overall per capita ecological footprints are low when compared to richer, industrialized nations like the United States and other industrialized nations.

Another remarkable statistic regarding Asia is the rate of urbanization in the region. It has been reported previously that for the first time in history, a majority of the Earth’s population are now living in cities. Asia, where the majority of humanity lives, is home to two-thirds of the world’s most populated urban areas (5 million inhabitants or more). While urbanization may be associated with the destruction of nature, the report does shed some positive light on ecological footprint-reducing government incentives in Asian cities.

One issue spotlighting Asia is the demand side for illegal wildlife trade, especially Vietnam and China, which is fuelling the disappearance of the African rhino, particularly in South Africa, where 80 percent of African rhinos are located. In 2003, over 1,000 rhinos were poached in South Africa, resulting a 5 percent loss in the country’s rhino population. Only around 880 mountain gorillas remain in the wild, the report notes, about 200 of them in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Mountain gorillas are among the 218 mammal species found in Virunga, along with 706 bird species, 109 reptile species, 78 amphibian species and more than 2,000 species of plants. But oil concessions have been allocated across 85 percent of the park, putting its long-term future in doubt. Drilling for oil could lead to habitat degradation and see the park lose its protected status and World Heritage Site listing.

Terrestrial species declined by 39 per cent between 1970 and 2010, a trend that shows no sign of slowing as habitat is cleared to make way for human land use – particularly for agriculture, urban development and energy production. Marine species declined 39 per cent between 1970 and 2010. The period from 1970 through to the mid-1980s experienced the steepest decline, after which there was some stability, before another recent period of decline. The steepest declines can be seen in the tropics and the Southern Ocean – species in decline include marine turtles, many sharks, and large migratory seabirds like the wandering albatross.

How Asia and the rest of the planet respond to what is being termed the “Age of Extinction” may take on more practical approaches. For example, tigers, rhinos, pandas and orangutans may play on our sympathies, but their numbers are already so low that their roles in terms of biodiversity are already small at best. On the other hand, if we do not stop the loss of pollinators like bees and pest-controlling bats, the results in terms of global food agriculture will be catastrophic.

With reporting by Graham Land, who blogs for Asian Correspondent