Humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970, leading the world’s foremost experts to warn that the annihilation of wildlife is now an emergency that threatens civilization.
The new estimate of the massacre of wildlife is made in a major report produced by WWF and involving 59 scientists from across the globe.
It finds that the vast and growing consumption of food and resources by the global population is destroying the web of life, billions of years in the making, upon which human society ultimately depends for clean air, water and everything else.
“We are sleepwalking towards the edge of a cliff,” said Mike Barrett, executive director of science and conservation at WWF.
“If there was a 60% decline in the human population, that would be equivalent to emptying North America, South America, Africa, Europe, China and Oceania. That is the scale of what we have done,” he said.
“This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is,” he said.
“This is actually now jeopardizing the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.”
“We are rapidly running out of time,” said Prof Johan Rockström, a global sustainability expert at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. “Only by addressing both ecosystems and climate do we stand a chance of safeguarding a stable planet for humanity’s future on Earth.”
Many scientists believe the world has begun a sixth mass extinction, the first to be caused by a species – Homo sapiens.
MIllions of Years to Recover
Other recent analysis have revealed that humankind has destroyed 83% of all mammals and half of plants since the dawn of civilization and that, even if the destruction were to end now, it would take 5-7 million years for the natural world to recover.
The Living Planet Index uses data on 16,704 populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians, representing more than 4,000 species, to track the decline of wildlife. Between 1970 and 2014, the latest data available, populations fell by an average of 60%. Four years ago, the decline was 52%. The “shocking truth,” said Barrett, is that the wildlife crash is continuing unabated.
“Wildlife and the ecosystems are vital to human life,” said Prof Bob Watson, one of the world’s most eminent environmental scientists and currently chair of an inter-governmental panel on biodiversity that said in March that the destruction of nature is as dangerous as climate change.
“Nature contributes to human wellbeing culturally and spiritually, as well as through the critical production of food, clean water, and energy, and through regulating the Earth’s climate, pollution, pollination and floods,” he said. “The Living Planet report clearly demonstrates that human activities are destroying nature at an unacceptable rate, threatening the wellbeing of current and future generations.”
The biggest cause of wildlife losses is the destruction of natural habitats, much of it to create farmland. Three-quarters of all land on Earth is now significantly affected by human activities. Killing for food is the next biggest cause – 300 mammal species are being eaten into extinction – while the oceans are massively overfished, with more than half now being industrially fished.
Chemical pollution is also significant: half the world’s killer whale populations are now doomed to die from PCB contamination. Global trade introduces invasive species and disease, with amphibians decimated by a fungal disease thought to be spread by the pet trade.
The worst affected region is South and Central America, which has seen an 89% drop in vertebrate populations, largely driven by the felling of vast areas of wildlife-rich forest. In the tropical savannah called cerrado, an area the size of Texas is cleared every few months.
The habitats suffering the greatest damage are rivers and lakes, where wildlife populations have fallen 83%, due to the enormous thirst of agriculture and the large number of dams.