Absent Radical System Change, World Faces Two-Thirds Wildlife Loss by 2020

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Absent Radical System Change, World Faces Two-Thirds Wildlife Loss by 2020

'We are at a decisive moment in time when we can seize the solutions to steer our food, energy, and finance systems in a more sustainable direction'

Gorillas are among the species facing the greatest threat from human activity. (Photo: Brian Harries/flickr/cc)

Global populations of wild animals could be down by two-thirds by 2020 without reform to food and energy systems, according to a devastating new report out Thursday.

The analysis by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Zoological Society of London finds that animal populations dropped 58 percent between 1970 and 2012. Without radical action, the world could witness a decline of 67 percent by 2020.

The annual Living Planet Index is the most comprehensive study to date, the organizations said. Since the mid-twentieth century, use of natural resources has gone up dramatically, harming biodiversity and other critical ecosystems. And now, as scientists suggest we've entered into a new geological epoch created by human activity—the Anthropocene—the report states that we are endangering the natural systems we rely upon, and are faced with a "dual challenge" to keep the earth habitable for animals and people.

"Wildlife is disappearing within our lifetimes at an unprecedented rate," said Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF International. "This is not just about the wonderful species we all love; biodiversity forms the foundation of healthy forests, rivers, and oceans. Take away species, and these ecosystems will collapse along with the clean air, water, food, and climate services that they provide us."

"We have the tools to fix this problem and we need to start using them now if we are serious about preserving a living planet for our own survival and prosperity," Lambertini said.

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The top threats to species identified in the report—fish, birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles, from gorillas to salamanders—are directly linked to human activity. That includes habitat loss and overexploitation of wildlife, both of which are in part a result of global food production for a booming population. The report notes that agriculture takes up about one-third of the Earth's territory and accounts for 70 percent of water use.

The Guardian also summarizes other findings:

Pollution is also a significant problem with, for example, killer whales and dolphins in European seas being seriously harmed by long-lived industrial pollutants. Vultures in south-east Asia have been decimated over the last 20 years, dying after eating the carcasses of cattle dosed with an anti-inflammatory drug. Amphibians have suffered one of the greatest declines of all animals due to a fungal disease thought to be spread around the world by the trade in frogs and newts.

But the report also offers some auspicious statistics, such as the measures small-scale farmers in developing countries are taking to protect their regional lakes and other biodiversity hotspots. And it notes that some species, such as the tiger and the giant panda, are starting to recover, suggesting that drastic action would make a significant impact.

The researchers hope the report will serve as a global wake-up call on conservation.

"Human behavior continues to drive the decline of wildlife populations globally, with particular impact in freshwater habitats. Importantly however, these are declines, they are not yet extinctions—and this should be a wake-up call to marshal efforts to promote the recovery of these populations," said Professor Ken Norris, director of science at the zoological society.

The report outlines some of the most necessary systemic changes that need to occur to prevent the massive species damage: expanding the global network of protected places; creating legal and policy frameworks that support equitable access to food, water, and energy; divesting from fossil fuels and redirecting financial flows to conservation and ecosystem management; producing and consuming more sustainable goods; and, in particular, transitioning into a resilient food system that does not rely on factory farms and agriculture.

Lambertini said, "No matter how you add it up, the math does not look good. The more we continue to exceed Earth's limits, the more damage we do to our own future. We are at a decisive moment in time when we can seize the solutions to steer our food, energy, and finance systems in a more sustainable direction."

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