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Wildlife populations plummet 60% due to human actions, report warns

Wildlife populations around the world have decreased by 60% since 1970 as humans overuse natural resources, drive climate change and pollute the planet, a report has warned.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has warned that current efforts to protect wildlife are failing and that more needs to be done to stop numerous species becoming extinct in the near future.

The Living Planet Report 2018 warns that it between 2009 and 2014 (the last year for which data was available) African elephant populations in Tanzania fell by 60%, largely due to poaching.

The WWF estimates there are only around 415,000 African elephants left.

Between 2009 and 2014 African elephant populations in Tanzania fell by 60%, largely due to poaching. Credit: WWF

Other victims of poaching include the black and white rhinos, numbers of which fell by 63% between 1980 and 2006, again targeted for their horns.

However, it is not just poaching that is leading to the deaths of the world's wildlife in huge numbers, humans are also negatively impacting on animals through pollution, the use of pesticides, the destruction of natural habitats, and climate change.

In south-west Ghana, the numbers of African grey parrots fell by 98% between 1992 and 2014 due to exploitation and damage to their habitat.

While white-rumped vulture numbers fell by 90% between 2000 and 2007, largely due to the widespread use of the anti-inflammatory cattle drug diclofenac.

Diclofenac causes kidney failure in birds that eat the carcasses of recently-treated cattle.

White-rumped vultures are critically endangered, with less than 10,000 adults left.

In just 26 years, the numbers of rhinos fell by 63%. Credit: WWF

The shocking decline has led to calls for an ambitious "global deal" for nature and people, similar to the international Paris Agreement to tackle climate change.

The negative impact of humans on wildlife is partly because only a quarter of the world's land area is free from the impacts of human activity, but the report warns that by 2050 this will have fallen to just a tenth.

The report also wars of the dangers of plastic.

In 1960, five percent of the world's seabirds had plastic in their stomachs, yet that has risen to 90% today, a whopping 85% increase.

Plastic items can suffocate and injure marine animals or be mistaken for food and eaten by species such as fish and turtles, who then suffer blockages, starvation and internal wounds leading to their death.

The percentage of the world's seabirds with plastic in their stomach is estimated to have increased from 5% in 1960 to 90% today.

Many fish, birds and sea mammals eat plastic in the oceans, which builds up in their stomachs and eventually kills them. Credit: WWF

The report also highlights the dangers of global warming, stating that in April 2018, levels of climate warming carbon dioxide reached the highest level in at least 800,000 years.

Warmer global temperatures lead to rising sea-levels, which destroy the habitats of many animals, and the homes of people.

Climate change is also leading to warmer oceans, contributing to the loss of half of the world's shallow water corals in just 30 years.

Overall, populations of more than 4,000 species of mammals, reptiles, birds, fish and amphibians have declined by an average of 60% between 1970 and 2014, the most recent year for which data is available.

Polar bear numbers are projected to decline by 30% by 2050, as climate change melts the Arctic ice. Credit: WWF

Tropical areas have seen the worst declines, with an 89% fall in populations monitored in Latin America and the Caribbean since 1970.

Species which live in fresh water habitats, such as frogs and river fish, have seen global population falls of 83%, according to the living planet index by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) which tracks the abundance of wildlife.

Declining wildlife populations indicate that current action to protect nature is failing, and not enough is being done to match the scale of the threat facing the planet, the conservationists claim.

"Exploding" levels of human consumption are driving the impacts on nature, with over-exploitation of natural resources such as over-fishing, cutting down forests to grow crops such as soy and palm oil and the use of pesticides in agriculture.

Climate change and plastic pollution are also significant and growing threats.

But wildlife is not just a "nice to have" for humans, the report warns, with human food, health and medicines all relying on natural resources.

The impact of humans is the predominant cause of the declining numbers. Credit: WWF

All human economic activity ultimately depends on nature, the report said, with globally natural resources estimated to provide services worth £97 trillion a year.

With the world set to review progress on sustainable development and conserving biodiversity under UN agreements by 2020, there is a window of opportunity for action in the next two years, the conservation group argues.

A new global deal should be secured, backed by strong commitments from governments and businesses, the report states.

"We are the first generation to know we are destroying our planet and the last one that can do anything about it," WWF Chief Executive Tanya Steele said in response to the report's publication.

"Our wanton destruction of nature, coupled with the brutal chaos of climate change, is the biggest threat to humanity.

"If we want a world with orangutans and puffins, clean air and enough food for everyone, we need urgent action from our leaders and a new global deal for nature and people that kick starts a global programme of recovery."

Poaching for ivory is a major cause in the loss of rhino and elephant numbers. Credit: WWF

TV presenter and WWF-UK ambassador Ben Fogle added: "I don't want my children growing up to learn about tigers, rhinos and even hedgehogs through history books and museums.

"I want them to see our world's diverse and wonderful wildlife with their own eyes.

"But our inaction is wiping out species across the globe and it terrifies me that, unless we make committed and immediate change to the way we live, there will be no other option for them."

Puffins numbers are expected to fall up to 79% in Europe between 2000 and 2069. Credit: WWF

In the report, the WWF highlighted species whose populations are in decline:

  • African elephant populations in Tanzania have declined by 60% between 2009 and 2014, mostly due to poaching for their ivory
  • Populations of black and white rhinos are down by an average of 63% between 1980 and 2006, with the illegal wildlife trade for their horns the biggest threat facing the animals.
  • Polar bear numbers are projected to decline by 30% by 2050, as climate change melts the Arctic ice and reduces their ability to hunt seals, find mates and rear their young.
  • African grey parrot populations in south-west Ghana decreased by 98% between 1992 and 2014 due to exploitation and damage to their habitat.
  • Hedgehog populations declined by three quarters in urban areas of the UK between 2002 and 2014, thought be due to factors including habitat loss, pesticides reducing their prey and vehicle deaths.
Habitat loss and pesticides are leading to the loss of hedgehogs in great numbers. Credit: WWF
  • The whale shark population in the Indo-Pacific is estimated to have fallen 63% over the last 75 years, and in the Atlantic by more than 30%, so that globally populations are thought to have fallen by more than 50% over the last 75 years.
  • More than 100,000 Bornean orangutans are estimated to have been lost between 1999 and 2015, largely due to the loss of their forest home for timber and palm oil plantations as well as illegal hunting.
  • Puffin numbers in Europe, which is home to 90% of the global population of the charismatic seabirds, is projected to fall by 50%-79% between 2000 and 2065 in the face of climate change and overfishing.
  • Populations of the wandering albatross have seen rapid declines as the birds are accidentally caught in long-line fisheries, with one population from Bird Island, South Georgia, falling 50% between 1972 and 2010, according to data from the British Antarctic Survey.