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Further zoonotic disease will emerge if huge wildlife decline and biodiversity loss continue – major studies warn

Today, WWF’s Living Planet Report is launched, which reveals a two-thirds decline in wildlife populations on average since 1970. 

Global populations* of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish have suffered an average two-thirds decline in less than half a century due in large part to the very same environmental destruction which is contributing to the emergence of zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19.

The Natural History Museum’s Andy Purvis and Adriana De Palma co-authored both the LPR and  a ground-breaking new paper, ‘Bending the curve of terrestrial biodiversity needs an integrated strategy’ which not only forms part of the LPR but is also independently published today in Nature.

The paper includes pioneering modelling which shows that without further efforts to counteract habitat loss and degradation, global biodiversity will continue to decline. The modelling makes clear that stabilising and reversing the loss of nature caused by humans’ destruction of natural habitats will only be possible if bolder, more ambitious conservation efforts are embraced and transformational changes made to the way we produce and consume food. Changes needed include making food production and trade more efficient and ecologically sustainable, reducing waste, and favouring healthier and more environmentally-friendly diets.   

Speaking about both the report and paper, Andy Purvis, who leads the PREDICTS project at the Natural History Museum says, “If society can take these bold steps to a sustainable future, then we really can build back better, and leave future generations with a world worth living in.”

The research shows that implementing these measures together, rather than in isolation, will allow the world to more rapidly alleviate pressures on wildlife habitats. This combined approach will reverse biodiversity trends from habitat loss decades earlier than strategies that allow habitat losses and then attempt to reverse them later on. The modelling also indicates that if the world carries on with “business as usual”, biodiversity will carry on declining. 

“And that decline in biodiversity really matters to our quality of life.”, Andy Purvis explains; “Nature provides us with most of our basic needs. Not only food, but also less obvious things like diseases control. We know that the species that do best in damaged habitats are the ones that are most likely to have diseases that – like COVID-19 – can be passed onto people.  So protecting natural areas and restoring damaged habitats isn’t just good for nature – it’s good for us too.”

The Living Planet Index (LPI), provided by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), shows that factors believed to increase the planet’s vulnerability to pandemics - including land-use change and the use and trade of wildlife - were also some of the drivers behind the 68 per cent average decline in global vertebrate species populations between 1970 and 2016. 

The Living Planet Report 2020 and the Nature paper both launch less than a week before the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly, when leaders are expected to review the progress made on the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The UNGA 2020 will bring together world leaders, businesses and civil society to develop the post-2020 framework for action for global biodiversity and thus marks a milestone moment to set the groundwork for an urgently needed New Deal for Nature and People.

Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International said: “The Bending the Curve modelling provides invaluable evidence that if we are to have any hope of restoring nature to provide current and future generations of people with what they need, then world leaders must - in addition to conservation efforts - make our food system more sustainable and take deforestation - one of the main causes of wildlife population decline - out of supply chains.”

Notes to Editors

Media contact: Tel: +44 (0) 20 7942 5654/+44 (0)7799 690151 Email: press@nhm.ac.uk

*Using the data from 4,392 species and 20,811 populations, the 2020 global Living Planet Index shows an average 68 per cent decline in monitored populations. The percentage change in the index reflects the average proportional change in animal population sizes tracked over 46 years - not the number of individual animals lost.

The full Living Planet Report 2020 and summary versions of the report are available here

More information about the Bending the Curve [LINK] paper written by David Leclère, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA); Michael Obersteiner, IIASA; Mike Barrett, WWF UK; Robin Freeman; ZSL; Tamás Krisztin, IIASA; Hugo Valin: IIASA; Piero Visconti, IIASA; Rosamunde Almond, WWF NL; Fulvio Di Fulvio, IIASA; Steffen Fritz, IIASA; Monique Grooten, WWF NL; Petr Havlík: IIASA; Martin Jung: IIASA; Lucy Young, WWF UK; and others can be found here [LINK to WWF site]. The paper will be published in Nature at https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2705-y on 10 September.

About the Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum is both a world-leading science research centre and the most visited natural history museum in Europe. With a vision of a future in which both people and the planet thrive, it is uniquely positioned to be a powerful champion for balancing humanity’s needs with those of the natural world.

It is custodian of one of the world’s most important scientific collections comprising over 80 million specimens. The scale of this collection enables researchers from all over the world to document how species have and continue to respond to environmental changes - which is vital in helping predict what might happen in the future and informing future policies and plans to help the planet.

The Museum’s 300 scientists continue to represent one of the largest groups in the world studying and enabling research into every aspect of the natural world. Their science is contributing critical data to help the global fight to save the future of the planet from the major threats of climate

change and biodiversity loss through to finding solutions such as the sustainable extraction of natural resources.

The Museum uses its enormous global reach and influence to meet its mission to create advocates for the planet - to inform, inspire and empower everyone to make a difference for nature. We welcome over five million visitors each year, our digital output reaches hundreds of thousands of people in over 200 countries each month and our touring exhibitions have been seen by around 30 million people in the last 10 years.

The Natural History Museum’s PREDICTS project analyses a global database of ecological communities to understand how human activities, such as land use, affect local biodiversity worldwide, find out more here.


WWF is an independent conservation organization, with over 30 million followers and a global network active in nearly 100 countries. Our mission is to stop the degradation of the planet's natural environment and to build a future in which people live in harmony with nature, by conserving the world's biological diversity, ensuring that the use of renewable natural resources is sustainable, and promoting the reduction of pollution and wasteful consumption. Visit panda.org/news for the latest news and media resources; follow us on Twitter @WWF_media


ZSL (Zoological Society of London) is an international conservation charity working to create a world where wildlife thrives. From investigating the health threats facing animals to helping people and wildlife live alongside each other, ZSL is committed to bringing wildlife back from the brink of extinction. Our work is realised through our ground-breaking science, our field conservation around the world and engaging millions of people through our two zoos, ZSL London Zoo and ZSL Whipsnade Zoo. For more information, visit www.zsl.org.