In 2016, the World Wildlife Fund released a shattering report: from 1970 to 2012, 14,000 monitored vertebrate populations declined 58 percent on average. Fast forward two years, and the numbers don’t look much better. That decline is now at 60 percent in the last 40 years, according to a report published Tuesday.
And this time around, the conservation organization added more than 2,500 new populations representing some 300 new species to its analysis. About half are fish (like goldfish!), a third are birds, and the rest are mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. One would hope, perhaps, that these additions would improve the statistics because not all animals across land, air, and water could be faring this badly, right? Well, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“The report is even more robust and has even more species in it, and things continue to not look great,” said Colby Loucks, the group’s senior director for its Wildlife Conservation Program.
The report—which authors call the biodiversity equivalent of the alarming climate change report published earlier this month—examines vertebrates throughout the world using data that already exists in journals, online bases, and government reports. Birds, mammals, amphibians are the focus, but the report even includes some data on corals and ancient palm-like trees called cycads. A team of more than 50 experts helped write sections and conduct research for this report to make it as comprehensive as possible though obviously, many species are not yet included.
The causes of this massive loss are clear—and they all point back to people. Humans are destroying wildlife habitat at an alarming rate, overexploiting resources, polluting irresponsibly, and driving global temperatures higher and higher, with disastrous ripple effects on ecosystems everywhere.
Freshwater ecosystems, in particular, are suffering big time. In fact, they’re the “most threatened” of all Earth’s ecosystems, per the report, with populations declining on average 83 percent since 1970. There’s pollution, which can lead to toxic algae blooms in lakes. There’s also overfishing and the building of harmful infrastructure like dams. The freshwater creatures at threat include river dolphins like China’s baiji, which could very well be extinct, Loucks said.
“It’s probably the most threatened cetacean in the world,” he told Earther. “We haven’t seen one in a number of years. Collectively, it’s just bad news.”
Still, this is bad news that humans have the power to change. As depressing as the report is, it offers a roadmap to “bending the curve of biodiversity loss.”
The first key step is curbing climate change. If we don’t hurry up and kick our fossil fuel-addiction, nothing else will matter much. But we must also take care of our forests and oceans globally through national and international policies. These can look new marine protected areas or policies that transform global food production. World leaders need to come together to create “a new global deal for nature and people,” according to the report.
The decline of wildlife impacts us, too. The plant and animals that are disappearing help feed us, filter our air and soil, supply our medicine, and inspire us.
“We have a small window of time to stop and restore and bend that curve,” said Louck. “For people to survive, nature needs to survive.”
Correction: The story has been corrected to note that Colby Loucks of the World Wildlife Fund did not work on this report, as previously stated.