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Wildlife populations have declined by a staggering 69% over the past 48 years.
This is the stark new finding from the latest World Wildlife Fund for Nature's Living Planet Report, with animals in Central and South America being particularly hard hit.
The planet's wildlife is being decimated. Within the span of a single lifetime, animal populations that scientists have monitored have declined by over two-thirds.
These shocking findings comes from the latest WWF Living Planet Report, which sets out to assess and quantify vertebrate animal populations around the world. Published every two years, the 2022 report is the most comprehensive to date, covering more species and more populations than ever before.
Habitat loss caused by land use change, the insatiable desire of people to cut down more forests, farm more land, extract more minerals and build ever-expanding infrastructure are all taking their toll. But pollution, climate change, invasive species and disease are also of concern.
Marco Lambertini, the Director General of WWF International, says, 'We face the double emergencies of human-induced climate change and biodiversity loss, threatening the well-being of current and future generations.'
'WWF is extremely worried by this new data showing a devastating fall in wildlife populations, in particular in tropical regions that are home to some of the most biodiverse landscapes in the world.'
But these figures - alarming though they are - could well be underrepresenting the true scale of loss. The studies assessed for the Living Planet Report only look at mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish, and does not take stock of the planet's invertebrates, despite them vastly outnumbering vertebrates. Invertebrates are also known to be facing their own biodiversity crisis.
A healthy and flourishing environment is not something that would simply be nice to have, it is critical to our well-being and to our very survival. If ecological systems become so unhealthy that they no longer function properly, the result will be shortages of the many different things nature helps to provide, most obviously food, but also clothing, materials, medicines, climate regulation and clean water.
We know how and why the health of the planet is deteriorating, and we have the tools to slow and reverse it.
To have a future in which both people and the planet thrive, we must go beyond just conserving what remains. We must act to bend the curve, shifting how we produce, consume, govern and finance our societies in order to protect and restore the planet's vital biodiversity.
The 2022 Living Planet Report assessed some 32,000 populations of 5,230 species around the planet, tracking the relative abundance of vertebrate animals from 1970 to 2018. While the average decline in this wildlife is enough to be of concern, digging into the details reveals some truly distressing figures.
Despite being among the most biodiverse places in the world, Latin America and the Caribbean region on their own have seen that monitored wildlife populations crash by 94% on average. What makes it worse is that the current data stops in 2018, so does not even include the effects of the rapid increase in deforestation and environmental destruction presided over during the past three years by the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
In September 2022 alone, for example, an area of rainforest the size of Greater London was destroyed, as deforestation ramped up in the wake of the uncertainty of Bolsonaro's continued presidency.
The population trends elsewhere are not so stark, but every region shows concerning declines, with 66% in Africa, 55% in Asia and the Pacific, 20% in North America and 18% in Europe and Central Asia.
Another indicator in the report, the Biodiversity Intactness Index (BII), may help to explain why these trends vary around the world.
The BII estimates how much of an area's natural ecological community survives. It shows that while North America and Western Europe has not seen such dramatic declines as other parts of the world, its biodiversity intactness is much lower to begin with. This is because in these regions the destruction of natural landscapes into farmland occurred long before the 1970s, the point at which the Living Planet Report starts, meaning that the decimation of wildlife in Europe and North America is simply not captured.
Professor Andy Purvis is a Research Leader at the Museum who helped develop the BII as a way of measuring biodiversity.
'The trends aren't so scary in Europe or North America, but that's largely because so many populations in those regions disappeared a century or more ago,' Andy explains. 'Although nature is declining really rapidly across much of the tropics, those ecosystems often still have much more of their natural biodiversity left than we do in the UK, for instance.'
Looking at specific groups of vertebrates finds that those living freshwater environments have fared the worst, with overall declines of 83%. Despite covering just 1% of the world's surface area, these waters are essential for our survival and well-being, as well as hosting one-third of all known vertebrate species.
With around half of all people living within just a few kilometres of freshwater, the pressures on these environments are numerous, including habitat loss, barriers to migration, and excessive pollution.
But the dramatic decline of these animals is not just a statistic in a report. The loss is being felt directly by those living in these regions.
Flor Delicia Ramos Barba lives in the Indigenous community of Santo Corazon in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. She says, 'The roar of the jaguar could be heard near the community three years ago, but not anymore. Compared with my childhood, I've witnessed a big difference.'
'The animals in the community are now gone. We also feel this lack in the rivers. The people used to go fishing to support their families, but now there are no fish. Tree species have also been disappearing.'
'As a community we have become aware of the difficulties that come our way year after year. The conservation of our territory is important to us.'
We know that humans have severely impacted many regions of the planet. But the good news is that we also know how to fix it.
This year the United Nations Human General Assembly recognised that everyone has the right to live in a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Enforcing this right falls primarily on governments, who must act to protect their own citizens' rights.
This needs to take a number of forms, tackling everything from energy production, sustainable consumption and agriculture, to climate change and biodiversity loss.
At the end of this year, politicians, policy makers and scientists from around the world will descend on Montreal, Canada, for the biodiversity conference COP15. With such stark warnings about the direction of travel the planet is currently heading in, the conference has taken on a new significance to get governments to finally start addressing biodiversity loss in the same way in which they are talking about the climate crisis.
'At the COP15 biodiversity conference this December, leaders have an opportunity to reset our broken relationship with the natural world and deliver a healthier, more sustainable future for all with an ambitious nature-positive global biodiversity agreement,' says Marco.
'In the face of our escalating nature crisis, it's essential this agreement delivers immediate action on the ground, including through a transformation of the sectors driving nature loss, and financial support to developing countries.'
Andy agrees. He says, 'The global economy is not separate from nature - it's embedded within nature. That means that to be sustainable, growth can't be at the permanent expense of nature. Asset-stripping ecosystems might give a one-time profit, but it's simply killing the goose that lays the golden egg.'
Whether or not anything concrete will come out of COP15 is still to be seen, but the reframing of the environmental crisis to centre biodiversity loss will be a critical foundation to build upon.