Report shows sharp decrease in animal populations from 1970 to 1996

10 September 2020 - 12:11 By Ernest Mabuza
A report by the World Wide Fund for Nature shows that wildlife populations found in freshwater habitats suffered a decline of 84% between 1970 and 1996.
A report by the World Wide Fund for Nature shows that wildlife populations found in freshwater habitats suffered a decline of 84% between 1970 and 1996.
Image: 123RF/Jozef Jankola

While more food is being provided to people in most parts of the world, the over-exploitation of plants and animals is increasingly eroding nature’s ability to provide them in the future.

The World Wide Fund for Nature released a report on Thursday which showed there was, on average, a 68% decrease in mammal, bird, amphibian, reptile and fish populations between 1970 and 2016.

The Living Planet Report 2020 presents a comprehensive overview of the state of the natural world through the Living Planet Index, which tracked almost 21,000 populations of more than 4,000 vertebrate species between 1970 and 2016.

The index also shows that wildlife populations found in freshwater habitats have suffered a decline of 84%.

A 94% decline in the index for the tropical subregions of the Americas is the largest fall observed in any part of the world.

The conversion of grasslands, savannahs, forests and wetlands, the over-exploitation of species, climate change, and the introduction of alien species were key drivers of the decline, the report shows.

The percentage change in the index does not represent the number of individual animals lost, but reflects the average proportional change in animal population sizes tracked over 46 years.

“The Living Planet Report 2020 is being published at a time of global upheaval, yet its key message is something that has not changed in decades: nature — our life-support system — is declining at a staggering rate,” the report said.

The report said the most important direct driver of biodiversity loss in terrestrial systems over several decades has been the conversion of pristine native habitats such as forests, grasslands and mangroves into agricultural systems; while much of the oceans have been overfished.

“Since 1970, these trends have been driven in large part by a doubling of the world’s human population, a fourfold increase in the global economy, and a tenfold increase in trade.”

Sir Robert Watson, of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, said the challenge was to transform agricultural and fishing practices, many of which are unsustainable today, into ones that produce the affordable and nourishing food we need while protecting and conserving biodiversity.

“For agriculture, this means using sustainable agroecological practices, reducing the use of chemicals, fertilisers and pesticides, and protecting our soils and pollinators,” Watson said.

Dr Morné du Plessis, CEO of WWF SA, said the latest edition of the Living Planet Report reminded people of the intimate link between human health and wellbeing and that of the natural world.

“A key issue highlighted in the report is the pivotal role food production plays when it comes to habitat loss and the environmental degradation driving this precipitous decline in biodiversity.”

WWF International director-general Marco Lambertini said the report highlights that a deep cultural and systemic shift is urgently needed: a transition to a society and economic system that values nature, stops taking it for granted and recognises that people depend on nature more than nature depends on us.

“This is about rebalancing our relationship with the planet to preserve the earth’s amazing diversity of life and enable a just, healthy and prosperous society — and ultimately to ensure our own survival,” Lambertini said.