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Since 1970, The World Has Lost More Than Half Its Wildlife

Over the last 40 years, while the human population more than doubled, the global population of wildlife dropped by an average of nearly 60%.

Since 1970, The World Has Lost More Than Half Its Wildlife
[Photo: Misty Pittman]

There is no easy way to put this: We are killing most living things. Since 1970, animals living in lakes, rivers, and other freshwater systems were hit hardest, with populations declining 81%. Land animals have declined 38%, while populations of marine species have dropped 36%. A new report from World Wildlife Fund details the losses.

Researchers looked at data from more than 14,000 wildlife populations and more than 3,700 species for the report. "It captures the depth and pervasiveness of the general loss of wildlife around the world—in the seas, in the rivers, on land," says Colby Loucks, senior director of conservation science at World Wildlife Fund. While elephants or rhinos might make headlines, the report focuses on how widespread the loss is.

Because populations keep falling, the report predicts that by 2020, wildlife populations will have dropped by about two-thirds compared to 1970 levels.

Farming and logging are the biggest driver of the losses, as habitat disappears. Poaching and hunting are also part of the problem (another recent study found that 300 mammal species are being now facing extinction—not just declining populations—because humans are eating too many of them). Pollution and climate change are also factors.

As human population keeps expanding, it keeps getting harder to protect nature. "We have this dual challenge of how do we maintain nature and the forms and functions so we have a home for both people and wildlife, and we have only one planet," says Loucks. "We're currently using about 1.6 planets' worth of land and energy to sustain us."

The loss of natural areas isn't only a problem for wildlife, since "ecosystem services" like clean air and water are also fundamentally important for human survival. It's a gloomy picture. But the report makes it clear that it's still possible to turn things around through large-scale government actions like the Paris Climate Agreement, and through broader shifts in human systems.

Since the food system is a primary cause of the problem, it's also a place to look for solutions. In the U.S., where roughly 40% of food is thrown out, one obvious place to start is food waste. "I think that's one thing that has the potential for quick actions that can have more immediate impact," says Loucks.

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