Turtle trapped in net

Many of the world's vertebrate populations are now in decline © naturepl.com / Jordi Chias / WWF

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Vertebrate populations have declined by 60% in just four decades

Humans have caused more than 60 per cent of vertebrate populations to decline since the 1970s, thought to be due to a massive increase in human consumption of resources around the planet.  

The sobering news comes with the release of the latest Living Planet Report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London.

It reveals the extent that human activity has impacted the natural world, causing many populations of mammals, fish, reptiles, amphibians and birds to crash over the last 40 years.   

The dramatic loss of wildlife is not only a tragedy for nature. The researchers stress that if allowed to continue it will be a significant threat to the survival of humanity itself. From the clean air we breathe to the energy we consume and the food we eat, humans rely on the planet's biodiversity for much of our survival, and yet we continue to degrade it like never before. 

Dr Simon Loader, Principal Curator in Charge of Vertebrates at the Museum, says, 'The Living Planet Report highlights the severe impact humans are having on nature.

'Our work at the Museum supports and has contributed to the findings of the Living Planet Report. This includes, among others, the impact of plastics on seabirds and species loss due to habitat change. Findings in this report need to be taken seriously, and it's time we were responsible stewards of our planet.'

Major declines

The report, which is produced by the WWF every two years, has looked at data on some 16,704 populations of vertebrates (animals with a backbone) covering over 4,000 species, and tracked their numbers from 1970 to 2014.

The overall trend is worrying enough, but it hides some even greater declines. 

Hedgehog in woodland

Numbers of hedgehogs in the UK have crashed over the last few decades © naturepl.com / Klein & Hubert / WWF

Freshwater species, including amphibians and fish, have been the worst hit globally with the research finding that populations have fallen by a staggering 83%.   

Tropical regions of the planet are also under the greatest threat. The report details how Central and South America are most affected regions globally, with 89% of all vertebrate populations in decline.

Simon says, 'The gravity of the situation is particularly devastating for vertebrates, with estimates of 60% of losses. We cannot know the exact loss, given our poor understanding of how many species actually exist, but the rapid change of natural habitats point to significant and substantial declines.'

The bigger picture

There are some limitations in the report. The declines are referring only to the average population loss of species, rather than the total number of animals themselves. Of course, as populations decline, individual animals are dying - but it is important not to conflate the two.

The report has also only looked at vertebrates. Mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles might be the most conspicuous animal species on the planet, but they are by far the least numerous. The fact is that the number of vertebrates is dwarfed by that of invertebrates.

Even then, the signs are not good.  

Deforestion for argiculture

Deforestation in Brazil is influenced by decisions made in the UK © Adriano Gambarini / WWF-Brazil 

A study released last year found that over just the last 25 years, the number of flying insects in nature reserves across Germany has crashed by 75%, leading some scientists to warn that we are on the verge of an 'ecological Armageddon'.

The fact that this has been silently occurring in Germany is of grave concern, with many worried about what it could mean for many other parts of the world. More than 75% of the leading global crops depend on pollinators such as flies, moths, wasps, beetles, butterflies and bees. Needless to say, their decline would be catastrophic.  

Regardless, this does not take away from the seriousness of the Living Planet Report's findings or the stark picture it has painted.

A connected world

The ever-increasing consumption of resources is driving these declines. From the unending demand for energy, food and space, habitats are being destroyed and wildlife displaced.

It is now thought that only 25% of the world remains free of human influences. If things are going to change, then action needs to start now. 

Making conscious decisions about what we consume, in terms of both food and products, will make a difference even when problems seem so distant. This is evident when looking at the deforestation that continues across much of South America, as much of this destruction is to make way for soya which in turn is bought by Western nations to feed livestock.

As the authors of the report write, 'We are the first generation that has a clear picture of the value of nature and our impact on it. We may be the last that can take action to reverse this trend.

'From now until 2020 will be a decisive moment in history.'