Nature in 'freefall' as wildlife populations fall by two-thirds since 1970, report warns

Wildlife populations have declined by more than two-thirds in less than 50 years. Credit: PA

Wildlife populations are in "freefall" and have declined by more than two-thirds in less than 50 years, a report by conservation charity WWF has warned.

The wildlife preservation organisation is calling for national laws to stop supply chains for food and other products from driving deforestation and the destruction of wild areas, and has urged people to shift from meat and dairy to more “plant-based” diets.

The Living Planet report said the main causes for the drop in wildlife and nature was due to the destruction of habitats and intensive agriculture processes developed by humans.

Populations of animals, birds and fish from different continents are all falling dramatically, the report warned.

Sir David Attenborough has called for international cooperation on the issue Credit: Chris J Ratcliffe/PA

The biggest driver of wildlife losses is changes to land, sea and water use by human activities such as unsustainable agriculture, logging, and development.

Wildlife also faces over-exploitation, such as over-fishing, threats from invasive species and diseases, pollution and, increasingly, climate change.

While conservation measures have helped species such as forest elephant in Ghana and tigers in Nepal, on their own they will not be enough to reverse the downward trends, WWF said.

But action to transform food production, including more sustainable agriculture, cutting waste and moving to healthier diets, to put less pressure on the planet while still providing enough for people to eat, can help nature recover.

Loss of forests is one of the main drivers of wildlife declines Credit: Luis Barreto/WWF-UK/PA

The Living Planet Index produced by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) as part of the report tracks the abundance of 20,811 populations of 4,392 species of mammals, reptiles, birds, fish and amphibians.

Overall, it found that monitored wildlife populations have declined in size by an average of 68% between 1970 and 2016, the most recent year for which data is available.

In Latin America and the Caribbean populations have crashed by 94% on average as grasslands, wetlands and forests are converted to agriculture, species are over-exploited, climate change takes hold and disease and invasive species take their toll.

Populations of freshwater species have seen a steep decline of 84% in less than 50 years, the index shows.

The report also draws on other assessments which show species at an increasing risk of extinction, that soil is losing much of its rich diversity of life in many parts of the world and that plants are seriously threatened.

Tanya Steele, chief executive at WWF, said: “Nature is in freefall, we have seen significant declines in population sizes of wildlife species around the world. That downward trend does not seem to be abating.”

She warned that humans were burning forests, polluting and over-fishing the seas and destroying wild areas.

“We are wrecking our world – the one place we call home – risking our health, security and survival here on Earth.

“Now nature is sending us a desperate SOS and time is running out.”

She called on the UK Government to fast-track tough new nature laws that protect wildlife at home and abroad, and to use key “Cop26” climate talks in Glasgow next year to secure urgent commitments and action from world leaders.

Leatherback turtles have seen populations decline by between 20% and 98% in some parts of the world Credit: Jurgen Freund/WWF/PA

Sir David Attenborough said there was an opportunity to achieve a balance with the natural world, which would require “systemic shifts” in how people produce food, create energy, manage the oceans and use materials.

“But above all it will require a change in perspective. A change from viewing nature as something that’s optional or ‘nice to have’ to the single greatest ally we have in restoring balance to our world,” the naturalist and broadcaster said.

In the essay published as part of a series alongside the Living Planet report, Sir David called for international cooperation to tackling the issue.